Immersive Augmented Reality on a Budget

By now we’ve all seen the cheap headsets that essentially stick a smartphone a few inches away from your face to function as a low-cost alternative to devices like Oculus Rift. Available for as little as a few dollars, it’s hard to beat these gadgets for experimenting with VR on a budget. But what about if you’re more interested in working with augmented reality, where rendered images are superimposed onto your real-world view rather than replacing it?

As it turns out, there are now cheap headsets to do that with your phone as well. [kvtoet] picked one of these gadgets up for $30 USD on AliExpress, and used it as a base for a more capable augmented reality experience than the headset alone is capable of. The project is in the early stages, but so far the combination of this simple headset and some hardware liberated from inexpensive Chinese smartphones looks to hold considerable promise for delivering a sub-$100 USD development platform for anyone looking to jump into this fascinating field.

On their own, these cheap augmented reality headsets simply show a reflection of your smartphone’s screen on the inside of the lenses. With specially designed applications, this effect can be used to give the wearer the impression that objects shown on the phone’s screen are actually in their field of vision. It’s a neat effect to be sure, but it doesn’t hold much in the way of practical applications. To turn this into a useful system, the phone needs to be able to see what the wearer is seeing.

To that end, [kvtoet] relocated a VKWorld S8 smartphone’s camera module onto the front of the headset. Beyond its relatively cost, this model of phone was selected because it featured a long camera ribbon cable. With the camera on the outside of the headset, an Android application was created which periodically flashes a bright LED and looks for reflections in the camera’s feed. These reflections are then used to locate objects and markers in the real world.

In the video after the break, [kvtoet] demonstrates how this technique is put to use. The phone is able to track a retroreflector laying on the couch quickly and accurately enough that it can be used to adjust the rendering of a virtual object in real time. As the headset is moved around, it gives the impression that the wearer is actually viewing a real object from different angles and distances. With such a simplistic system the effect isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting to think of the possibilities now that this sort of technology is falling into the tinkerer’s budget.

If you don’t want to go the DIY route, Leap Motion has been teasing an open source augmented reality headset which has us quite excited. We’re still waiting on the hardware, but that hasn’t stopped hackers from coming up with some fascinating AR applications in the meantime.

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Leap Motion’s Project North Star Gets Hardware

It’s been more than a year since we first heard about Leap Motion’s new, Open Source augmented reality headset. The first time around, we were surprised: the headset featured dual 1600×1440 LCDs, 120 Hz refresh rate, 100 degree FOV, and the entire thing would cost under $100 (in volume), with everything, from firmware to mechanical design released under Open licenses. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. Now it seems Leap Motion is releasing files for various components and a full-scale release might be coming sooner than we think.

Leap Motion first made a name for themselves with the Leap Motion sensor, a sort of mini-Kinect that only worked with hands and arms. Yes, we’re perfectly aware that sounds dumb, but the results were impressive: everything turned into a touchscreen display, you could draw with your fingers, and control robots with your hands. If you mount one of these sensors to your forehead, and reflect a few phone screens onto your retinas, you have the makings of a stereoscopic AR headset that tracks the movement of your hands. This is an over-simplified description, but conceptually, that’s what Project North Star is.

The files released now include STLs of parts that can be 3D printed on any filament printer, files for the electronics that drive the backlight and receive video from a laptop, and even software for doing actual Augmented Reality stuff in Unity. It’s not a complete project ready for prime time, but it’s a far cry from the simple spec sheet full of promises we saw in the middle of last year.

Smartphone App Uses AR to Visualize The RF Spectrum

Have you ever wished you could see in the RF part of the radio spectrum? While such a skill would probably make it hard to get a good night’s rest, it would at least allow you to instantly see dead spots in your WiFi coverage. Not a bad tradeoff.

Unwilling to go full [Geordi La Forge] to be able to visualize RF, [Ken Kawamoto] built the next best thing – an augmented-reality RF signal strength app for his smartphone. Built to aid in the repositioning of his router in the post-holiday cleanup, the app uses the Android ARCore framework to figure out where in the house the phone is and overlays a color-coded sphere representing sensor data onto the current camera image. The spheres persist in 3D space, leaving a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that map out the sensor data as you warwalk the house. The app also lets you map Bluetooth and LTE coverage, but RF isn’t its only input: if your phone is properly equipped, magnetic fields and barometric pressure can also be AR mapped. We found the Bluetooth demo in the video below particularly interesting; it’s amazing how much the signal is attenuated by a double layer of aluminum foil. [Ken] even came up with an Arduino with a gas sensor that talks to the phone and maps the atmosphere around the kitchen stove.

The app is called AR Sensor and is available on the Play Store, but you’ll need at least Android 8.0 to play. If your phone is behind the times like ours, you might have to settle for mapping your RF world the hard way.

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Lenses For DIY Augmented Reality Will Get a Bit Less Unobtainable

You may remember that earlier this year Leap Motion revealed Project North Star, a kind of open-source reference design for an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. While it’s not destined to make high scores in the fashion department, it aims to be hacker-friendly and boasts a large field of view. There’s also an attractive element of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to the displays and optical design, which is a good thing for hackability. Instead of everything residing in a black box, the system uses two forward-facing displays (one for each eye) whose images are bounced off curved reflective lenses. These are essentially semitransparent mirrors which focus the images properly while also allowing the wearer to see both the displays and the outside world at the same time. This co-existence of both virtual and real-world visuals are a hallmark of Augmented Reality.

A serious setback to the aspiring AR hacker has been the fact that while the design is open, the lenses absolutely are not off the shelf components. [Smart Prototyping] aims to change that, and recently announced in a blog post that they will be offering Project North Star-compatible reflective lenses. They’re in the final stages of approving manufacture, and listed pre-orders for the lenses in their store along with downloadable 3D models for frames.

When Leap Motion first announced their open-source AR headset, we examined the intruiguing specifications and the design has since been published to GitHub.  At the time, we did note that the only option for the special lenses seemed to be to CNC them and then spring for a custom reflective coating.

If the lenses become affordable and mass-produced, that would make the design much more accessible. In addition, anyone wanting to do their own experiments with near-eye displays or HUDs would be able to use the frame and lenses as a basis for their own work, and that’s wonderful.

Bose Wants You to Listen Up for Augmented Reality

Perhaps it is true that if all you have is a hammer every problem you see looks like a nail. When you think of augmented reality (AR), you usually think of something like the poorly-received Google Glass where your phone or computer overlays imagery in your field of vision. Bose isn’t known for video, though, they are known for audio. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that their upcoming (January 2019) AR sunglasses won’t feature video overlays. Instead, the $200 sunglasses will tell you what you are looking at.

The thing hinges on your device knowing your approximate location and the glasses knowing their orientation due to an inertial measuring system. In other words, the glasses — combined with your smart device — know where you are and what you are looking at. Approximately. So at the museum, if you are looking at a piece of art, the glasses could tell you more information about it. There’s a video showing an early prototype from earlier this year, below.

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Faux Walkie-Talkie for Comedy Walking Tour is a Rapid Prototyping Win

Chances are good that a fair number of us have been roped into “one of those” projects before. You know the type: vague specs, limited budget, and of course they need it yesterday. But you know 3D-printers and Raspberduinos and whatnot; surely you can wizard something together quickly. Pretty please?

He might not have been quite that constrained, but when [Sean Hodgins] got tapped to help a friend out with an unusual project, rapid prototyping skills helped him create this GPS-enabled faux-walkie talkie audio player. It’s an unusual device with an unusual purpose: a comedic walking tour of Vancouver “haunted houses” where his friend’s funny ghost stories are prompted by location. The hardware to support this is based around [Sean]’s useful HCC module, an Arduino-compatible development board. With a GPS module for localization and a VS1053 codec, SD card reader, and a small power amp for the audio end, the device can recognize when the user is within 50 meters of a location and play the right audio clip. The housing is a 3D-printed replica of an old toy walkie-talkie, complete with non-functional rubber ducky antenna.

[Sean]’s build looks great and does the job, although we don’t get to hear any of the funny stuff in the video below; guess we’ll have to head up to BC for that. That it only took two weeks start to finish is impressive, but watch out – once they know you’re a wizard, they’ll keep coming back. Continue reading “Faux Walkie-Talkie for Comedy Walking Tour is a Rapid Prototyping Win”

Glasses For The Hearing Impaired?

If you don’t have hearing loss, it is easy to forget just how much you depend on your ears. Hearing aids are great if you can afford them, but they aren’t like glasses where they immediately improve your sense in almost every way. In addition to having to get used to a hearing aid you’ll often find increased noise and even feedback. If you’ve been to a theater lately, you may have noticed a closed caption display system somewhere nearby that you can sit within visual range of should you be hard of hearing. That limits your seat choices though, and requires you to split your attention between the stage and the device. The National Theatre of London is using Epson smart glasses to put the captions right in your individual line of vision (see video below).

The Epson glasses are similar to the Google Glass that caused such a stir a few years ago, and it seems like such a great application we are surprised it has taken this long to be created. We were also surprised to hear about the length of the project, amazingly it took four years. The Epson glasses can take HDMI or USB-C inputs, so it seems as though a Raspberry Pi, a battery, and the glasses could have made this a weekend project.

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