Augmented reality could assist research methods

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Matt Ramirez looks at developments in wearable technology and what this could mean for research practices

When it comes to clothes, we usually choose things because they do a useful job or make us look good – and if they do both, so much the better. Developers of wearable technology such as augmented-reality glasses are finding that similar rules apply.

Augmented-reality glasses are very much in their infancy and they still face barriers when it comes to social acceptance. Early versions of Google Glass, which is due to launch properly later this year, and Epson’s Moverio Smart Glasses, which came onto the market earlier this spring, are chunky and give wearers a look that not everyone wants. However, users might be willing to overlook that if they could enjoy benefits that aren’t offered by other, more established devices. And this is likely to become reality as developers create imaginative new uses for the glasses and as ‘big data’ becomes both more prevalent and easier to integrate into the hardware.

Developers say wearables offer a more fluid way to work with technology, removing the need to haul tablets around, or to keep taking your smartphone out of your pocket. That alone will make research work out in the field more efficient. Last year in the UK, as an experiment in what’s possible in augmented reality, Mimas, part of the Jisc digital resources division, and Manchester Museum co-developed a Discover Geology app with the University of Manchester. This app was trialled with a group of people interested in the geology of the area around Castleton in Derbyshire, UK. Using their phones, our guinea pigs were able to hear an audio commentary explaining points of interest along a predetermined route, identify fossils and minerals found along the way and locate points of special interest. The experiment got some very positive feedback and there’s no doubt that we could create an even more immersive experience with a device like Google Glass.

Big data will make augmented reality glasses ideal for informatics. In the not very distant future it should be possible for researchers to build on ideas such as Discover Geology and use big data to serve up content such as detailed soil information or accurate core samples based on their precise location. The technology is developing and more diverse and powerful sensors are being incorporated into the devices; a time is coming when researchers could record detailed readings of air quality, weather phenomena and water purity (for example) from their location and add them straight into existing datasets for analysis. All while they’ve got their hands free to check their map and their watch – although these functions could also be accessed via their augmented-reality glasses.

Similarly, archaeologists may soon be adapting wearable technology to enable radar and LiDAR information to be overlaid on their field of vision so that they can see more precisely where they need to dig.

Developers are committing significant resources to adapt devices to serve the needs of users in healthcare and health research. At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the USA, wearables are being used as a teaching tool, recording what a surgeon is doing and live streaming it to students and colleagues. One surgeon is going further and experimenting with loading patients' scan results into his headset so that he can compare them with what he sees in the patient on the table. Because the scans appear in his peripheral vision, he no longer has to turn away from the patient and risk losing his focus.

Elsewhere in the USA, at St Louis’ Washington University, augmented-reality glasses have been adapted to help surgeons distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells. When fluorescent ink and special lighting are used, the glasses show cancerous cells glowing blue, helping surgeons to excise the tumour fully without removing too much healthy tissue around it. Overlaying patient data and images in this way has huge potential in health sciences – a further example is a new application from California-based medical imaging company Evena Medical, which uses Moverio projectors to enable clinicians to see through a patient's skin to a depth of up to 10mm, helping them to see exactly where veins lie and to find the best placement for an IV line. As treatment progresses, the glasses can detect if – and precisely where – a leakage develops in the IV.

Much of the work that has been done so far to adapt wearables and develop a distinct niche for them in education is still at proof of concept stage. The ability of developers to imagine and engineer ‘wow!’ applications for augmented-reality glasses will be crucial if the products are to become a natural, practical way to use and reuse information. But the fast-developing relationship between big data and augmented reality gives me serious hope that this is happening. At Mimas we have started collaborating with Epson, aiming to showcase a range of new resources that higher-education students and researchers will evaluate, identifying clearly the applications for augmented reality that are most useful.

Matt Ramirez is lead augmented reality developer/project manager at Mimas, part of the Jisc digital resources division