ALBANY — James Mower is not in the business of seeing the future, but he has a knack for anticipating and creating technology that seems ahead of its time.
Over a decade ago, the University at Albany associate professor created an augmented reality program that allows users to take live images and overlay them with three-dimensional information. Intelligent Image, the name of Mower’s AR technology, was patented in 2005, well before the Pokemon GO craze.
In recent years, AR and virtual reality technology have become increasingly popular, with Microsoft’s HoloLens and apps like Snapchat. According to Techcrunch, the AR/VR market could be worth $108 billion annually.
Intelligent Image is poised to become a part of that market.
Though still in the early stages, AR is expected to impact many activities and businesses, with applications for land surveying, mapping, hiking and the broader tourism industry. With its rendering capabilities, it could also be an essential navigation tool for emergency crews during forest fires.
“If you don’t have good visibility, you would still be able to use your technology to tell you what direction to go in," Mower said. "You would be able to have an image without smoke in it of what your path to safety might be.”
The Intelligent Image prototype, which operates on Mower’s desktop computer, is connected to a steerable camera located on the roof of Mohawk Tower. The camera has its own web server that feeds a live image of the campus back to Mower’s computer. Using the three-dimensional data (position and height) taken from New York State’s Geographic Information Systems database, details about the surrounding community and natural landmarks pop up, as users adjust the camera.
Information about each building on the UAlbany campus comes onto the screen as the camera pans over it. Stores surrounding the campus are also overlain with information, and clicking on the information brings the user right to the store’s website.
But Mower sees the prototype stretching far beyond the campus.
“We were anticipating that people would eventually be walking around with screens and hoping that they’d also have the ability to connect to the internet, and both of those things are critical,” Mower said.
Eventually, he hopes Intelligent Image can be used on the mobile level, though the technology isn’t quite there yet. The compass technology and the processing power, even on the latest Android/iPhone, are not powerful enough to work with Intelligent Image.
“The newest iPhone is supposed to have really good enhanced sensors for augmented reality applications. [But] all I’ve heard is the hype,” Mower said.
The next step is getting the technology out there, said Peter Gonczlik, of UAlbany’s office for Innovation, Development and Commercialization.
“We do the research, but we don’t do the development,” Gonczlik said.
He recently proposed a research project to create a field platform for a local engineering firm, but that company is still looking over the proposal.
Over the past year, Mower has been working with a colleague to see if it would be possible to merge Intelligent Image's technology with autonomous vehicle technology. As the latter technology advances, and it becomes commonplace to have self-driving cars, windows won't only be used for visibility.
“You have a lot of windows that you could use augmented reality to overlay an image. You might have symbols overlaying the features that you’re seeing. If there’s a mountain ahead of you, you could have an overlay telling you what that mountain is or other details. Same with the road ahead of you,” Mower said.
While those applications are likely a few years out, it’s a viable enough future for Mower and his colleagues to build around.
“One of the freedoms of being in academia is we’re less profit-driven. ... We have the luxury here of being able to look a little further ahead,” Mower said.