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An Augmented Reality Welding Helmet

Probably not for kids.
August 3, 2012

I doubt you’ve been tungsten gas welding recently, but it turns out it’s a demanding process. A set of University Toronto researchers (among them wearable computing pioneer Steven Mann) write in an abstract that tungsten inert gas welding requires “more skill and more visual acuity than most other welding processes” and that “keen eyesight and exact hand-eye coordination” are a must.

As if tungsten welding weren’t difficult enough, recording tungsten welding is just about impossible. A state-of-the-art digital camera is unable to properly adjust itself to capture an image of the site of welding–the brights are far too bright, and the darks are far too dark. What’s needed is a camera system with a far wider dynamic range, a virtual eye that can take in the high highs and low lows all at once.

Mann et al. have built just that, and will be presenting their stereo “EyeTap welding helmet” at this year’s Siggraph conference. (A PDF of their abstract, here.) The specs of their set-up are fairly complicated, and listed in the abstract in full. Here’s what the team says about its hardware implementation, for instance: that it comprises an Atlys circuit board manufactured by Digilent, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and that the circuit board includes two HDMI camera inputs, one for the left eye, the other for the right. The circuit board processes imagery using a Xilinx Spartan 6.

The idea is to build a helmet that puts two cameras right where the eyes will be, and then capturing and streaming the extremely dynamic visual information of tungsten inert gas welding. The somewhat “tamed” images of this extreme environment will present information more clearly than the unassisted eye could witness. The stream of imagery might be sent to students learning how to weld, or to inspectors judging their welding. And since the helmet itself has a heads-up display, welders can basically use the system as an augmented reality device to aid their welding in the moment.

As the researchers conclude: “Our goal… is to show the future development of high dynamic range eyeglasses as a seeing aid and how such technology can be used to enhance human vision in [a] extreme dynamic range scene such as welding.”

The device remains a bit abstract, of course, since that’s all that’s been shared at this point–an abstract–but folks at Siggraph should know a good deal more next week.

Mann has a personal interest in this sort of work, and has for some time. As TechCrunch and others have reported, Mann wears a device called an EyeTap, a small camera and computer he has attached directly to his skull. He’s basically decades ahead of Google’s vision of Google Glass, and has himself been a cyborg of sorts for 34 years, when he first started wearing such a system. (For more on that tech, see the EyeTap site.) Mann has written that he believes that such “Digital Eye Glass” will one day replace ordinary glasses for everyone. But last June, it became evident that people at a certain French McDonald’s did not agree–Mann alleges that he was assaulted at a Parisian branch of the fast food chain due to his unusual eyewear.

Here’s a great video introduction of Mann and his work.

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