As Pokemon Popularizes Augmented Reality, Hollywood Explores AR's Potential

AR will be front-and-center this week at Siggraph — Oscar winner Ben Grossmann says it offers "superpowers" and countless applications in Hollywood and beyond.
Courtesy of Microsoft
Microsoft's HoloLens

With the overwhelming success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has entered the big-time. And while the rollout of augmented reality is still at an earlier stage than that of its cousin, virtual reality, Hollywood is carefully exploring the future possibilities for AR.

Emerging technologies and applications for both augmented and virtual reality will be showcased in a dedicated exhibition area at the annual CG confab Siggraph, which begins today and runs through July 28 at the Anaheim Convention Center. The "VR Village" aims to demonstrate the technology's potential for storytelling, as well as in areas such as education, design and gaming.

AR is generally used to refer to a live, real world environment, augmented with additional CG, video, data or the like. (It’s sometimes used interchangeably with the term mixed reality, although some see subtle differences between the two). In the case of Pokemon Go, computer-generated Pokemon characters appear on a mobile device screen as if they’re in the real world.

But AR could soon move beyond a phone, since headsets, glasses and even contact lenses with AR capabilities are in development. Many are exploring the potential to offer new types of immersive, interactive stories or games, while the potential uses for AR extend well beyond entertainment. With AR glasses or contact lenses, a user could even run into someone on the street and have data appear to remind him of the other person's name and when they last met — a handy tool for remembering someone’s name!

AR is poised to become ubiquitous, predicts Ben Grossmann, who won an Oscar for the visual effects on Hugo and is now a co-founder and CEO of Magnopus, a L.A.-based firm that is developing applications for AR and other emerging technologies. “When it’s ubiquitous, we’ll just refer to this as reality. It’s everyday life,” he says. “[You’ll be able to use it] for anything you are already using your phone for, but with visual search. You could look at it as superpowers — the ability to recall anything about a person or object.

“For Hollywood, AR can take the movie universe out of the movie theater and into the real world; that’s what Pokemon Go does. Imagine taking elements of the Star Wars universe and bringing them into the real world. Pokemon Go is also going to justify the development of more advanced systems and make it attractive for companies to invest in AR,” Grossmann says.

Currently the buzziest AR systems include Microsoft’s HoloLens. A first version of the headset is now available for $3,000. There is also a still-under-wraps system from Magic Leap, an AR startup that's seriously impressed those who have seen it under a non-disclosure agreement — as evidenced by the fact that the company has already raised a jaw-dropping $1.4 billion.

Various Hollywood studios have already shown a keen interest in AR as well — among them is Twentieth Century Fox’s Fox Innovation Lab, which is testing systems such as the HoloLens.

AR "could be applied to all walks of life, in theory,” says Danny Kaye, executive vp of global research and technology strategy at Fox Home Entertainment, who also co-manages the Fox Lab.

Kaye views entertainment and gaming as two early applications for the technology, but warns "it’s going to take time to develop. If you are going to put a computer on your head, it has to be smaller, lighter and more affordable for a mass market."

Grossmann says Magnopus — whose technical problem-solving partners also include VFX Oscar winners Craig Barron (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Alex Henning (Hugo) — is working to incorporate the HoloLens into production alongside Glenn Derry, who developed the Simul-Cam virtual camera system used during production of Avatar. Together, he says, they are working on a method of using the HoloLens during movie production, so that filmmakers can see the set with the VFX already applied. Some testing occurred during production of Disney’s The Jungle Book, he says.

“One of the most amazing things about the HoloLens is the tracking,” Grossmann explains. “Early AR systems gave people a headache because the latency between the graphics and real world would slip. The HoloLens nailed tracking and matches the real world. Plus it’s all mobile, so you have a platform to start imagining what's possible.”

Far beyond Hollywood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is exploring how it can use entertainment and gaming technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, for scientific research and, soon, to bring the public to the Red Planet through virtual experiences.

JPL senior technical lead Victor Luo says JPL-developed On Sight AR technology is mounted on the Curiosity Rover on Mars and allows scientists to explore the terrain.

“We have a passion for reaching out to the public,” he adds, reporting that JPL has developed a spinoff technology called Destination Mars that allows the public to also experience the Red Planet. “[Former astronaut] Buzz Aldrin and one of our Rover drivers will walk people through the sites on Mars and teach the viewers about some of things we’re studying," he says, telling The Hollywood Reporter that this planned 8-10 minute AR experience is expected to open at the Kennedy Space Center before the end of the summer.

Luo acknowledges that this technology also could be applied to making Hollywood movies. “We see where this is going for entertainment,” he says. “You can walk around the set, and experience the movie or documentary from any perspective. I think it’s going to be a game changer for entertainment and other industries.”

JPL is also working on various AR technologies and applications that are being tested for use on the International Space Station. “Currently there are two Microsoft HoloLens devices there and we’re planning to send more,” Luo says as an example. “The International Space Station is potentially the most complicated machine ever built. There are so many experiments going on, and there’s so much training involved and procedures [to learn] before astronauts go up; but you can’t memorize everything… As astronauts are expected to spend more time in space and as they go further from Earth, where real-time communication isn’t realistic, we think this technology [to review procedures, etc.] is really going to enhance the way they operate.”

Additionally — production designers take note — Luo also described 'ProtoSpace,' a JPL app for spacecraft design and visualization. “We are designing new space crafts and it's really hard to understand the concepts of what they’re building. [With ProtoSpace] we can visualize it at full scale or any scale. It’s as if it’s there. They can walk around it, talk about it, pull up virtual pieces. It has huge potential and is currently being used on the next spacecraft that we are sending to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter; for Mars 2020, the next rover going to Mars; and for a couple Earth-orbiting spacecrafts.”

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