Augmented reality combines worlds to make the real world safer
By David Mascareñas
Remember Pokémon Go, that location-based game that took off a couple summers ago? The one that was praised for promoting physical activity but condemned by some governments as a security threat? Approximately 800 million people have downloaded the app, which uses a phone’s GPS ability to locate, capture, battle, and train animated creatures (Pokémon) that appear on the screen as if they occupied the same real-world location as the user.
Pokémon Go is widely credited with popularizing augmented reality technology, which enhances reality when a device such as a phone or a headset overlays digital information (in the form of holograms) onto the real world. Augmented reality is different from virtual reality and different from everyday reality. In virtual reality, a person is completely immersed in a computer-generated world. In everyday reality, a person is completely in the real world. Augmented reality blends computer-generated images into the real world.
Although the Pokémon Go craze is waning, the popularity and more serious applications of augmented reality continue to spread. Los Alamos National Laboratory is investigating the technology’s applications and writing software in support of the Laboratory’s national security mission, such as tracking inventories or giving workers instructions for using equipment on the job and in real time. Other new uses of augmented reality technology being developed at Los Alamos may save time, money, and even lives by improving procedures for structural-health monitoring.
Structural-health monitoring determines the physical integrity of structures such as bridges, buildings, and dams. Current techniques are largely visual. Inspectors look for cracks or corrosion and measure their extent. The inspectors record those observations, compare them to previous years’ observations, and then deem the structures safe (or not).
The problem with current techniques is that often structures are so large that accurately measuring them can be difficult and time consuming. Using augmented reality, however, an inspector wearing a headset can quickly take a lot of accurate three-dimensional measurements of a structure using a headset or smartphone. More data points equals a better safety analysis. As many buildings near the end of their design lives — their predicted life span — augmented reality technology will become crucial to determining when and where upgrades are needed.
Measurements taken using augmented reality technology can also be helpful during construction. For example, last summer, the Laboratory partnered with Los Alamos County to measure the surface area of a recently poured concrete sidewalk. The county wanted to know the sidewalk’s surface area in order to pay the contractor who did the work. Normally survey crews do these types of measurements, but the augmented reality technology was able to take accurate measurements that were faster, less expensive, and required less training for the operator.
Augmented reality technology can also make structures safer for people with disabilities. Using the technology, Los Alamos County workers were able to measure the grade of a paved multiuse path. They found one section of the trail too steep to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. It had to be redone. In the future, instead of measuring structures retroactively, construction crews might make measurements on the fly and adjust their work in real time, which would be a real advantage in a society where people — and Pokémon — are constantly on the move.
David Mascareñas, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Engineering Institute in the National Security Education Center (NSEC), was named a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Obama in February 2016.