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Augmented reality lab tinkers in Waterloo Region

T. Pender, The Record
| in
internet of things

ST JACOBS — New ways of using interactive digital technology are being developed in an old building beside the Conestogo River in this quaint tourist village.

What's happening inside 1440 King St. N. is at the cutting edge of the region's economy as it transitions from manufacturing to high technology.

A foundry operated out of the basement about 40 years ago. Molten metal was poured into moulds made of sand to create a variety of castings.

Workers combined metals into exotic alloys. Sand by the tonne was shovelled by hand, and the work was so strenuous the owners bailed men out of jail to work there.

Later, it was a felt factory.

Today, above the old foundry is the Felt Lab — a place where the public and private sectors came together to create a living laboratory for individuals and companies to learn about using interactive digital media.

The emphasis is on interactive.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, download the free app called Layar or Arasma and then step into the world called augmented reality. As the mobile device is pointed at a "marker" that triggers the software, its screen starts to display links, moving 3D images and sound.

The markers can be placed just about anywhere — on paintings, sidewalks, museum displays, business cards, the pages of a book or a newspaper. After you download Layar or Arasma to your device, point it at a marker and enjoy the experience.

The software does not work on BlackBerry devices.

Inside the Felt Lab you hold up the mobile device — running Apple or Android — in front of a picture of Robbie Burns. On the small screen the late poet comes to life, raising a glass of Scotch and reciting Ode to Haggis — think of the moving portraits in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Hold a smartphone or tablet in front of a painting in the lab by the artist Amy Ferrari, and she appears on the screen talking about her art work.

There is a print of the famous Edward Hopper painting called Nighthawks. The painting depicts a small group of people around the counter in an all-night diner. The creative types at the Felt Lab had a lot of fun with this one.

When you hold up your device to the print, a digital video shows the legs of a huge mechanical monster stomping along the streets outside the diner. The woman in the painting starts to scream, and the waiter pulls out a ray gun and blasts the robotic monster into a pile of scrap metal. There is a shortage of people with the skills to do that kind of animation and art work.

"What we need coming out of the new digital-media space in downtown Kitchener are people with the skills to do this type of animation," says Jennifer Janik, a digital experience integrator for Research Entrepreneurs Accelerating Prosperity — or REAP — a partner in the Felt Lab.

The Kitchener Studio Project at Charles and Gaukel streets opens soon. It will be a digital-media campus with the latest technology. Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo, the City of Kitchener and Christie Digital are partnering on the project.

"Marketing agencies are going to be receiving requests for this and they are going to need people who are trained and able to deliver it," Janik says.

The whole idea is to find new ways of communicating information. The Royal Ontario Museum uses this digital-media technology in its world-class exhibit Ultimate Dinosaurs. There are large markers on the floor next to the dinosaur skeletons.

When you point your phone at the markers, a moving image of the dinosaur-in-the-flesh appears on your screen. Put your finger in front of the device and the dinosaur will bite it. You can hit the photo button on your smartphone and then Tweet it, email it or post it on social media.

There are 70 apps available for augmented reality. The big question is, which one to use? That is where REAP comes in. It is part of the Canadian Centre for Arts and Technology, at the University of Waterloo, and is among the founding partners in the Felt Lab, along with Christie Digital and advertising firm Quarry Integrated Communications.

"REAP is here to help cultivate new business models using interactive digital display," Janik says.

The lab finds new uses for existing technologies to help create new businesses or to better support existing ones.

"There is a lot of powerful technology that allows you to build cool stuff, but the question is, where are the business opportunities?" Janik says.

A few steps away from Janik, a collection of glasslike panels forms a large screen. A small projector is behind each panel, beaming an image. Collectively, the images form the inside of an art gallery and on the wall are paintings by Amy Ferrari.

Christie Digital, of Kitchener, invented and manufactures the squares that are called MicroTiles. A Kinect Camera allows you to move through the virtual space and view different Ferrari paintings by moving your head or arms.

"You can tour the gallery by standing here and moving," says Terre Chartrand, a spokesperson for the Felt Lab.

This virtual art gallery also uses voice recognition technology. If you speak to the tile that displays Ferrari's art, the artist pops into the frame and talks about it.

Like just about everything else in the Felt Lab, the virtual gallery uses existing technologies in new ways and new combinations.

The virtual gallery uses a program called Unity, which is the foundation for a lot of games. That program is paired with cameras that are also used on the Microsoft Xbox — the Kinect Camera. The images are projected onto the MicroTiles. GestureTek developed the infrared Kinect Camera scanner that detects your movements and changes the images in the virtual gallery.

MicroTiles are used in another display for selling wine. A bottle is placed in a small alcove in the centre of the display. The information on the bottle is scanned, and the projectors behind each panel display pictures of the vineyard where the wine originated, food that it should be paired with, reviews of the wine and information about the winery.

"This is where the arts and creative innovation comes up and becomes really important. We've got great technologies that are on the market, but what else can you do with them? How can you develop new market channels for them?" Janik says.

Janik oversees University of Waterloo undergrad students from a variety of disciplines working on research projects in the Felt Lab.

"This is about knowledge integration, this is about understanding many different dimensions and pulling it into a human experience that is really compelling," Janik says. "That's the new market of knowledge workers we need — designers, creators, artists."

Janik is standing beside a table with a display surface that is surrounded by infrared beams that detect the touch and movement of fingers on the table surface. A computer below translates the finger and hand movements into graphics — colourful games, artwork or a series of prompts to help bankers plot your financial future.

It is called the GestureTek Illuminate Multi-touch Table. Most tablets or computer screens are electrostatic and are operated by the touch of a single finger. The multi-touch table reads 64 touch points at the same time.

Janik says the Felt Lab was approached by a chartered bank with a problem. Financial advisers at the bank often found people are reluctant to share information. So the lab developed software that turns the touch table into an interactive questionnaire/survey complete with colourful graphics.

"We want to find new ways to interact with people, and identify what they need and what we can do for them," Janik says.

The financial adviser is on one side of the table and the clients on the other. The different screens can be flipped around so the clients can view the screen and touch different parts of it to provide details for financial planning. It can transform the way finances are discussed.

"The non-verbal cues — watching a person hesitate before they select something — you would never be able to capture that on a website," Janik says. "The design is different than you would have on a website because it is designed for multiple people to work together in the digital space."

The lab invites businesses to visit the Felt Lab to discuss their challenges and issues and possible solutions that use digital media displays. It also welcomes students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

"We need the students from art, digital media, psychology, sociology, knowledge integration, science, technologies, math, computers," Janik says.

Marketing firms are early adopters of new technology. Quarry Communications leases the space in the same building and the University of Waterloo's Canadian Centre for Arts and Technology brought in the partners for the Felt Lab.

The technology partners at the Felt Lab include GestureTek, Christie Digital, Float4 Interactive, Intel, blueRover and Conestoga College.

Janik picks up a tablet, taps on the screen to activate Layar and starts scanning the room. Dragons appear on the screen flying around the Felt Lab. She taps the screen again, and butterflies replace the dragons. Janik holds out her hand in front of the device and a butterfly lands on it.

The augmented reality software reads the gyroscope and compass in your device, and generates 3D images flying around you. "It is just a fun app," Janik says. "But you can imagine having fun with this as a marketing campaign for the butterfly museum."

The lab encourages people to visit and use the Conestoga College iMac workstation, equipped with Adobe Creative Suite, to build up their skill set.

"We also have a subscription to so they can self-study," Janik says. "It is a website with videos to learn how to use all the common software tools."

The Felt Lab and the City of Waterloo explored how augmented reality can be used to provide more and better services to citizens. This research focused on the public square at King Street South and Willis Way. The Felt Lab found lots of uses for augmented reality here.

Point your smartphone at a marker in the Waterloo Town Square and a list of upcoming events in that public space appears on your screen. You could also view a digital video about the artist who created The Waterloo Bell (Bell for Kepler) sculpture that is displayed in the square.

There are lots of ways municipal governments can use augmented reality — on-street parking overnight, historic walks, tours of municipal art museums and galleries.

"Just point it at the parking sign and enter your licence plate number. Your car will be registered and then you are covered for the night. The city knows your car is there and you won't be ticketed," Janik says.

Augmented reality can also be used to provide people with a list of activities and events that are happening at that time within a few blocks.

"Imagine the Blues Festival," Janik says.

Artists and venues are changed with little or no notice during large music festivals. But augmented reality could be used to provide festivalgoers with the latest on show changes.

"Think of all the artwork that you can't see because it is owned by the city, but it is in storage because there is not enough space," Janik says. "What a waste. So what we do is put in markers and we have the artwork recycling, so every five minutes you have a different piece of art."


Augmented reality lab tinkers in Waterloo Region

T. Pender

The Record, Waterloo ON