Brown University Unveils Portal-ble "Hands-On" Augmented Reality Technology

Initial implementation requires a Leap Motion Hand Tracker and Intel Neural Compute Stick accelerator, but shows real promise.

Gareth Halfacree
a month agoAugmented Reality

Researchers at Brown University have developed a new augmented reality platform for smartphones that allows the user to grasp, manipulate, and release virtual objects.

Augmented reality, in contrast to virtual reality which entirely replaces what the user sees, is designed to overlay information onto the real world. While it has plenty of potential to revolutionise a variety of industries, its most common use to date is in mobile games and entertainment packages. These use a player's smartphone to bring in-game objects to the real world, but with one major drawback: you can only interact with them through the smartphone screen.

The Portal-ble system developed at Brown University is different: Users can view the virtual objects using their smartphone, then reach out with their other hand to 'grasp' an object and move it around.

"AR [augmented reality] is going to be a great new mode of interaction," claims Jeff Huang, assistant professor of computer science at Brown University. "We wanted to make something that made AR portable so that people could use anywhere without any bulky headsets. We also wanted people to be able to interact with the virtual world in a natural way using their hands.

"Swiping just wasn’t a satisfying way of interacting," adds Huang, referring to the current through-the-screen interaction systems employed in mobile AR packages like the popular Pokémon Go. "In the real world, we interact with objects with our hands. We turn doorknobs, pick things up and throw things. So we thought manipulating virtual objects by hand would be much more powerful than swiping. That’s what’s different about Portal-ble."

The system, sadly, relies on hardware not typically present in today's smartphones. In order to use the current version of Portal-ble, you'll need a Leap Motion Hand Tracker plus either a Windows desktop or an Intel Neural Compute Stick USB accelerator to perform the computational heavy lifting required by the hand-tracking and object-interaction code.

The Portal-ble system, which the researchers are hoping will prove popular among artists, designers, and game developers, is to be presented at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology 2019 (UIST 2019) later this month. The paper is available here (PDF warning), while a dedicated website offers more information alongside a link to the source code under the GNU General Public Licence Version 3.

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Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin.
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