In the movie Surrogates, we were presented with a look at something that is not too far fetched even today. The idea that we can (will?) have our own Avatar in the form of a robot, that will represent us in the real world and possibly conduct all our social interactions is not far fetched! The video above shows us the technology is already here today. It just needs to be fine tuned, perfected and made cost effective. Price is not an issue for someone who may need such assistance, or “life augmentation”.
Having our own Surrogates, even in a “phase 1” stage where they are not human like, but just motorized robots with a single arm would still be welcomed. This would benefit people who may be physically challenged, senior citizens and even in circumstances such as Homeland defence. There are already robotic vehicles and remote controlled robots that assist in bomb detection and such, in civil and specialist security forces.
However, mass deployment of this technology may be around 10 to 15years away, by the time laws and regulations are drawn up, and software and hardware testing optimized. The video above shows one such robot assistant already being tested in Japan, for senior citizens at a supermarket.
In this article we take a look at an alternative yet related possibility; A mix of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, to accomplish some of these tasks. We take a theoretical look at how technology from Google just may help accomplish this.
AR to Mixed Reality…to Surrogate Reality:
Every one is now aware or being introduced to Augmented Reality. This is the next big Technology marvel. While previously it resided only in University research labs, the emergence of cost effective hardware such as the I-Phone, Google’s Android and other brands of Smart Phones, with sophisticated hardware such as digital compasses and accelerometers has allowed Augmented Reality applications to be introduced to the public. One excited market is the Ad Industry and Marketing agencies that have helped popularize this technology.
Augmented Reality thus far has come to mean the overlaying of Computer generated imagery (CGI) in perfect registration and orientation with a live view (usually via the built in camera of a device) of the real world. In most instances people are now familiar with turning on their built in smart-phone camera, and have an AR application run, that superimposes useful information in context to the live camera view shown on the display. Examples range from a list of nearby fast food outlets, to geo tagged “tweets” from Twitter. Applications like Layar also allow the overlaying of 3D objects of interest.
If we could use the concept of Augmented Reality, mixed with Virtual Reality, in context with a town, city and even the world… we could in effect, be sitting at home and roaming a virtual world, while “interacting” with Real People in the real world. This would be Mixed Reality, or Surrogate Reality.
Google Powered Surrogate Reality:
How would Google power such a Surrogate Reality experience? Google already has a Virtual version of not only every street, town and city… It has a virtual copy of the entire planet in the form of Google Earth. With Google Earth you can zoom in and spin a “Digital Globe” on a PC to visit a geographically correct and accurate digital representation of any city or country in the world down to street level. A rich overlay map shows an aerial satellite image of this location draped on the digital globe.
The Digital Globe from Google also has many ‘layers’ that can be turned on and off, such as traffic information, locations of civic services etc. One of the most important layers is the 3D buildings layer. This allows whole streets and city blocks to be represented in Google Earth as 3D models that can be navigated in real time. All these layers are geo referenced and located at exact real world co-ordinates. So for instance if we create a 3D building and a community park or playground and place it at the exact co-ordinates as in the real world, we would have a location that we can navigate to virtually, and be at the same place as someone who may be there in real life (IRL)!
Another example, is if we create a replica 3d model of a supermarket or a bookstore that exists in real life and place this 3D model at the exact same co-ordinates on the Digital Globe, we could “fly” to this virtual model and “enter” the building as shown in the video above.
Case Study – Social Networking in a Surrogate Reality World:
How does this all tie in and what are the benefits of mixing Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?. Take the case of the community park as mentioned above. If we have a virtual model of such a community park, and if Google Earth adds an “avatar” layer we could have a Second Life type socializing and collaboration platform. Using Internet chat, voice and webcam we could start a social interaction with another avatar that might be at the same location.
In-fact Google had done an experiment with such a virtual world with their project, Lively which has since been closed. If you thought this would be an interesting way to meet different people from different parts of the world, via a very intuitive interface (much better way than navigating in Second Life), imagine if you could interact with REAL PEOPLE who may be present at that Real World location! Your avatar or Surrogate would be socializing with a real Human, driven by you in the comfort of your armchair.
Surrogate interaction with Humans:
So how would your Surrogate avatar interact with Real People? This is where Augmented Reality comes in. If there is a real person at the same real world location as your surrogate, the real person can switch on a “Google Earth AR client” application on their Smart Phones. This would be a version of Google Earth that does not have the graphic or map overlay of the Digital Globe, but has all the layers enabled, including the 3D building and avatar. If needed the 3d building layer can be turned off, as it would actually exist in real life. By aiming the smart phones camera around they can “see” in the live display view, any avatars in the vicinity. Of course the real world location would have to be under wifi coverage, or the user have a good 3.5G data plan. Internet costs are coming down by the day, and it is in the interest of forward thinking countries to “connect” their citizens.
Radius of ‘Contact’; Human and Surrogate:
So a Human present at a real world location, can via his/her smart-phone, locate and interact with a “Surrogate”. Social Interaction will take place just as it does today; The surrogate hears the Human who speaks thru the smart-phone’s mic, and the Human hears the Surrogate via the smart-phones speaker or headphones. The Human of course is at all times “seeing” the Surrogate via the augmented view of the smart-phone’s camera. This way the Human can know where the Surrogate is. Communication can be initiated and maintained only while the Surrogate is within a certain radius of the smart-phone and by the user then “clicking” on the Surrogate.
On clicking the Surrogate to start social interaction, a 3D avatar of the Human can then “spawn” in the virtual world so that the Surrogate can have visual confirmation or “see” the Human. The accelerometer and compass in the smart phone can keep track of the movement of the Human in the real world and thus update the position of the Human’s avatar. It is then up to either the Human or Surrogate to stay in one place or move around and be followed by the other, in order to maintain the radius of contact for social interaction in their Digital Personal Space.
In the video above, a Surrogate is shown in a real world location as would appear when viewed through the display of a Smart Phone.
The Future Of a Surrogate Reality World:
It is not hard to imagine practical scenarios where a Surrogate Reality World would play a much needed role.
1) Assisted Shopping for the Physically Challenged – If a supermarket were to combine e-commerce with the visual intuitiveness of the technology described above, A person could use Google Earth, navigate to their local Supermarket, and see a 360 degree panoramic image as in the third video above. Using high Quality 360 panoramic images, a user can zoom in to see details on products. “Hotspots” as used in Html image-maps can be clickable and link to a virtual shopping cart as is standard in online shopping today. The person then controlling the Surrogate can “check out” and have Groceries delivered home. This is a welcome service for older people, or even for just Arm chair shopping. The store can update a 360 panoramic shot on a daily basis or as frequently as as needed.
The store can be down the street, or can allow the Surrogate to do online shopping at a fashion outlet in another city or Country, if there is international delivery. The intuitiveness of spinning the Globe and landing at a famous outlet, along with the possibility of interacting with other Surrogates AND real people in another city is what can drive e-commerce!
2) Surrogate run Information Booth – Businesses and Tourism boards can have a 24/7 “manned” presence in any kind of location, indoors or outdoors run by a Surrogate. People in the real world can interact and “talk” to the surrogate and have questions answered. This way it is possible for one Surrogate operator to tend to more than one location at a time, depending on actual people traffic. A great marketing and advertising opportunity exists just from the novelty factor of communicating with an Augmented Reality Surrogate.
This article is not meant to be show a finished ready to deploy solution, but is intended to ignite creative sparks to the possibilities that already exist, and what is possible with some fine tuning. Google has a perfect platform in Google Earth, combined with their Android Smart phone as well as initiatives such as Google O3D. These technologies are worth keeping an eye on. O3D can render full 3D worlds in a web-browser for instance. There are interesting times ahead, and no doubt the organization who initiates action will have first mover advantage. This was shown with start-ups such as facebook and Twitter. Even Google was a start up at one time!
Dirrogates – Transhumanism and The Singularity:
What is a Dirrogate? A Digital Surrogte of a living (or dead) person. Read a science fiction based novel “Memories With Maya” to learn more about how Augmented Reality, Quantum Archeology and Posthumanism may change our lives within the next few decades.
Disclaimer: The author has no connections, nor is associated or affiliated with Google. All Google Registered Trademarks are recognized.