This article was originally published on March 13, 2012.
While the better-known concept of ‘virtual reality‘ (VR) concerns immersive artificial worlds, ‘augmented reality’ (AR) involves blending the real world with simulated elements.
The technology has already been employed in niche areas such as flight simulations and surgical training, but AR’s range of uses has increased as available computing power has grown.
Similar heads-up display (HUD) technology exists for military fighter jet and helicopter pilots, who wear helmets with the transparent displays. Newer commercial airliners also use HUDs installed in the cockpit, but lack the head-tracking “augmented reality” of NASA’s technology that layers virtual images or maps on top of a pilot’s real-world vision.
Giving pilots better awareness on airport runways swarming with airplanes could prevent catastrophes such as the world’s deadliest aviation incident at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.
A collision there between a jumbo jet trying to take off and another jet sitting on the foggy runway ended in a blazing inferno that killed 583 passengers and crew.
The head tracker combines built-in gyroscopes and a camera that detects passive paper targets pasted around a cockpit to tell where a pilot has turned his or her head.
The ESA designed Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR) is a wearable computer system that incorporates a head-mounted display over one eye to superimpose 3D graphics and data onto its wearer’s field of view.
“At the moment, International Space Station (ISS) crews still use paper instruction manuals for many operational and maintenance tasks,” explains Luis Arguello of ESA’s Modelling and Simulation Section, overseeing the WEAR project. “Obviously, it’s easier to perform a task while holding instructions in your hand. So we have developed a new type of user interface that is easier still, allowing astronauts to be guided precisely in their work without holding anything at all.”
On the software side, WEAR incorporates a 3D AR toolkit as well as speech recognition and synthesis technology, object recognition and tracking systems and commercial bar code reading technology. Reading the bar code allows the quick identification and retrieval of information of ISS items stored in the onboard Inventory Management System.