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Sony Sets Its Sights on Augmented Reality

The future of mobile gaming will merge the virtual and real worlds.

Sony has demonstrated a new augmented reality system called Smart AR that can be built into the company’s future gaming devices.

Augmented reality involves mapping virtual objects onto a view of the real world, usually as seen through the screen of a smart phone. The technology has so far been used to create a handful of dazzling smart-phone apps, but has yet to take off in a big way. However, many believe that mobile gaming could prove to be an ideal platform for the technology. With Smart AR, certain real-world objects could become part of a game when viewed through a device such as the PlayStation Portable. This could allow game characters to appear on a tabletop, perhaps, or to respond to the movement of real objects.

Unlike many augmented reality systems, Smart AR does not use satellite tracking or special markers to figure out where to overlay a virtual object. Instead, it uses object recognition. This means it works where GPS signals are poor or nonexistent, for example, indoors. The markerless system is more difficult to pull off, but it allows many more everyday objects to be used.

“Prototypes of Sony Computer Entertainment’s next-generation of portable entertainment systems will be integrated with this technology,” says Takayuki Yoshigahara, deputy general manager of Sony’s Intelligent Systems Research Laboratory in Tokyo. “SCE is also considering adopting this technology for its software development kit in the future.” This would allow games developers to add augmented reality features in the games made for Sony consoles.

Sony has dabbled with the technology before, using two-dimensional barcodes known as CyberCodes as markers for tracking objects.

According to Yoshigahara, Smart AR identifies objects using an approach known as local feature extraction, which means it tries to identify salient parts of the object within the image. The system also tracks the object’s movement, and works out its orientation. This is necessary in order to know how the virtual data should be positioned in relation to the object.

Smart AR also builds a rough 3-D map of a room. This is achieved by measuring disparities between different snapshots taken from slightly different perspectives as the camera moves. This allows virtual objects to interact with the environment.

Tobias Hollerer, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says Sony’s technology combines several areas of research. “If they do anything new, it is in tracking the entire room,” he says.

Edward Rostens, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge and cocreator of an augmented reality system for the iPhone, called Popcode, says getting several different techniques to work together using the limited processing power of a handheld device would be impressive.

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