Science meets imagination

January 26, 2006, vol. 35, no. 2

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Virtual reality. The term conjures up images of people wearing strange headgear for exploring three-dimensional computer-generated spaces, or perhaps watching a 3-D IMAX movie at a science museum.

Now, there's something even cooler - augmented reality.

Assistant professor of geography Nick Hedley has spent the past six years developing and researching new ways to visualize and manipulate 3-D images using augmented reality (AR).

In a brief demonstration of one type of AR - a virtual mirror - he sets a small video camera atop the large LCD computer display on his desk and focuses it on a white disk about the size of a frisbee. On the disk is a strange looking black pattern.

Hedley turns on the computer. When he picks up the disk and turns it toward the camera something incredible happens. There he is, on the screen, holding the disk. But instead of the black motif, the disk now holds a digital three-dimensional model of a chunk of rugged landscape. As he moves it around, it's evident that it's three-dimensional. There's no keyboard, there's no mouse. Just a very natural interaction. Harry Potter would be awestruck.

Certainly, Hedley's students are awestruck. He was one of the first to use AR in geographic visualization to teach students about complex spatial phenomena, such as characterizing underground geophysical structures, or figuring out the seasonal relationships between the earth, sun and moon.

“Generally, I find that using tangible AR interfaces in the classroom increases factual and conceptual learning,” says Hedley. “Like virtual reality, AR users can see and test their own hypotheses by exploring or modifying the conditions in a virtual environment.”

In conventional textbooks, he notes, diagrams and animations included on companion CD-ROMs are either static or show only one sequence of animated events, forcing the reader to look at things from the illustrator's point of view.

“The compelling thing about AR,” says Hedley, “is that it allows interaction with 3D virtual content to take place in real spaces, like a conference table or classroom and at the same time, you can see and interact with your colleagues.”

Word of Hedley's creativity spread to Boston. He was asked to design and create part of a new museum exhibition entitled Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination being developed by the Boston Museum of Science and Lucasfilm Inc.

For the exhibit, he created three interactive AR kiosks where users can explore spatial relationships and habitat design. At one kiosk, for example, the user has to run a moisture farm that harvests moisture from the dry air of the fictional desert world of Tatooine. In the face of ever-changing circumstances, the user learns that efficiency, cooperation and compromise are all essential for success.

And just like a computer strategy game, the user experiences the consequences of decisions, except that the units and landscapes are all in 3D on the table in front of them and can be picked up and inspected or placed elsewhere.

“The point,” says Hedley, “is that you can never win. It's always going to be dynamic, changeable, in a state of disequilibrium. Like life.”

The exhibition opened in October to critical acclaim, and was attended by Star Wars writer, director and producer George Lucas. After six months in Boston the exhibit will tour North America until 2008, including a stop at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland next fall.

Hedley's research lab at SFU, the spatial interface research lab (SIRL), is dedicated to developing and evaluating advanced interface techniques for applications in spatial/geographic research and education. Current research projects include interfaces for prototyping avalanche hazards, groundwater modelling and visual analytics.
For more information contact him at

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