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Augmented Reality, Designed for Space, Half a Century Behind Everyone Else

The 'revolutionary' new AR interface itself

By now, one would think that the virtues of augmented reality interfaces as technical overlays were obvious to the leaders of each individual industry. Apparently, this is still not the case, as the European Space Agency (ESA) have just released details of a new one they have been testing and how it actually benefits astronauts when in space. Quite scarily they actually believe they are the first organisation to implement an AR interface, according to their press release.

The ESA-designed Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR) is a wearable computer system that incorporates a head-mounted display over one eye to superimpose 3D graphics and data onto its wearer's field of view.

Controlled by voice for hands-free operation, WEAR includes onboard location and object identification to show astronauts precise information about what they are looking at, as well as providing step-by-step instructions to guide them through difficult, lengthy procedures.

"At the moment, International Space Station (ISS) crews still use paper instruction manuals for many operational and maintenance tasks," explains Luis Arguello of ESA's Modelling and Simulation Section, overseeing the WEAR project. "Obviously, it's easier to perform a task while holding instructions in your hand. So we have developed a new type of user interface that is easier still, allowing astronauts to be guided precisely in their work without holding anything at all."

Still, it is good to see AR usage spreading. Sadly, they are in for a rude awakening if they try to market the 'revolutionary' WEAR interface to anyone else, as we have been using them in other industries for upwards of ten years - the first wearable AR display being of course Professor Ivan Sutherland's 'Sword of Damocles' display system created in 1968.

ESA astronaut Frank De Winne has begun testing the prototype of the space-AR unit WEAR, or WEarable Augmented Reality unit. Unimpressive naming conventions aside, the unit is actually very well engineered.

"The WEAR concept started as research and development within ESA's General Support Technology Programme, targeting commercial non-space applications such as architecture and maintenance as well as space activities," explains Mr Arguello. "It's the result of many years of VR/AR research. The system took a long time to conceive but was very fast to implement: once WEAR was accepted by ESA and NASA, we had to work fast to turn a design concept into flight-ready hardware."

Quite some time then. About 40-50 years in all. Might have been easier to buy one of your competitor units, ready engineered and test it in zero gravity. No moving parts, should be no problem, and considerably less bulky and intrusive than yours.

WEAR was assembled ad-hoc from off-the-shelf components. Key hardware elements include a mobile computer connected to a headset with a head-mounted display, a pair of video cameras - which are not stereoscopic to the end user, purely used for recognition of barcodes, and their spatial location, not to aid the construction of 3D VR elements. It also contains an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU).

All in all, the thing weighs about half a lb to three quarters, in contrast to the 5 oz devices used elsewhere, and occupies the entire upper half of the wearer's head, with separate batteries required for each component.

On the software side, WEAR incorporates a 3D AR toolkit as well as speech recognition and synthesis technology, object recognition and tracking systems and commercial barcode reading technology. Reading the barcode allows the quick identification and retrieval of information of ISS items stored in the onboard Inventory Management System.

On the ground, Space Applications is considering firefighting as a non-space application of WEAR. Within the space sector, it is being proposed to support operations inside ESA's test facilities.

We pity those poor fire fighters.



Sutherland's Sword of Damocles


Augmented reality to help astronauts make sense of space

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