The Rise of Augmented Reality at USC

While virtual reality (VR) seems to be all around Los Angeles this year in the form of Google Cardboards and Samsung Gear VR’s, there is another immersive technology that may become even more impactful. Augmented reality (AR) is slowly emerging as an area of heavy investment in the tech industry, and it can already be found all over USC’s campus ‑ not to mention as a key hidden addition to the recently-announced iPhone 7 Plus.

For those not yet familiar with devices like the Microsoft HoloLens or Meta 2, augmented reality refers to the technique of overlaying digital images and information onto the real, three-dimensional world in front of one’s eyes. This creates what’s perceived as “holograms” that can be interacted with as easily as one would with a touch screen. Imagine seeing walking directions as a colorful path on the sidewalk in front of you, or picture seeing your friends sitting around your living room and talking while they’re thousands of miles away. New technology will allow us to display these images on AR headsets (few of which are currently commercially available) or simply on a smartphone screen, in an albeit less present way.

Many companies took notice of this summer’s success of Pokemon Go as it brought basic AR to many people by overlaying digital Pokemon onto the real world. Just last week on Sept. 7, Apple introduced the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, casually mentioning that they are adding dual cameras to the Plus. What they didn’t mention was that dual cameras allow a computer to sense depth, similar to the two eyes of humans. A depth-sensing iPhone may then be able to understand 3D environments around it and use that information to create augmented experiences. Apple CEO Tim Cook himself recently said that Apple is “investing heavily in AR.”

Some students and faculty at USC believe that AR has the potential to completely replace the screens that we use to interact with our computers. Scott Fisher, Dean of Research at the School of Cinematic Arts, directed a program at NASA that developed the first immersive interfaces to be used by astronauts to interact with computers in space. Now, he runs a USC research lab with a focus on immersive technologies. His longtime colleague Mark Bolas has been called “an expert on virtual and augmented reality” by the New York Times and had mentored a young VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey before he founded Oculus.

The most exciting part about the development of AR at USC isn’t what the amazing faculty has already done, but what’s sure to come. A plethora of research opportunities for students and faculty, as well as organizations like the USC Institute of Creative Technologies and the Blackstone LaunchPad, create a laser-focused culture around developing the prototypes that will one day evolve into tools that we use every day. Student startup teams at VRSC (Editor Note: Ilia Labkovsky is the Vice President of VRSC), the immersive tech student organization, continue to create projects in their free time that even large companies can’t seem to wrap their heads around. It’s an exciting time for this new technology at SC, and it’s the perfect time for interested students to get involved.