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Video: Augmented reality system lets users manipulate objects with their hands

17 October 2019

A new software system developed by Brown University is allowing augmented reality (AR) to be placed into practical use applications for artists, designers, game developers and others.

The system, called Portal-ble, allows users with smartphones to place virtual building blocks, furniture and other objects into real-world backdrops where the objects can be manipulated.

"AR is going to be a great new mode of interaction," said Jeff Huang, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown. "We wanted to make something that made AR portable so that people could use it anywhere without any bulky headsets. We also wanted people to be able to interact with the virtual world in a natural way using their hands."

The idea of the software system grew out of researchers’ frustration with AR apps such as Pokémon Go where users have to interact with the objects by swiping on the screen.

The Portal-ble system allows users to interact with their hands through a small infrared sensor mounted on the back of a smartphone. The sensors track hand movements in relation to virtual objects, allowing users to “pick up” virtual objects in their hands and drop them into the real world.

"It turns out that picking up a virtual object is really hard if you try to apply real-world physics," Huang said. "People try to grab in the wrong place, or they put their fingers through the objects. So we had to observe how people tried to interact with these objects and then make our system able to accommodate those tendencies."

To make the interactions easier between virtual objects and hands, the team used sensory feedback, or visual highlights on objects as well as phone vibrations. Researchers found that phone vibrations helped users to interact and feel something when actually grabbing a virtual object.

During testing, users of the system reported the feedback used made tasks easier, less time-consuming and more satisfying.

The next steps involve expanding the object library of the AR system, refining interactions and developing new activities as well as streamlining the system to work entirely on the phone without an additional infrared sensor.

Currently, AR is being applied to a number of practical use applications. It has been used as a tool for forensic scientists in crime solving, to help the blind navigate, to help automobiles navigate and as a tool for repair and maintenance in the industrial segment.

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