October 27, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Zombie in the kitchen
Something smells good…

There’s a zombie standing in my kitchen. It doesn’t look too dangerous, but it’s dripping god-knows-what onto the linoleum and it doesn’t appear to be wearing any trousers. Arms outstretched, it lumbers forward, grey fingers reaching out for my neck. I press a small, blue button. The zombie convulses, a red patch appears on its forehead, and it disappears. There isn’t even a mess to clean up. The zombie and all of its bodily fluids are contained neatly in my mobile phone, and the intrusion into my kitchen was just a clever illusion.

Nokia’s Zombie ShootAR is an augmented reality (AR) game. As I view my kitchen through my phone’s camera function, computer-generated 3D images are superimposed on my field of view, allowing all manner of virtual creatures and objects to merge seamlessly with the real-world. “I’d define AR as using computer-generated images to augment reality as you see it,” says Dr Pearson, a futurologist and engineer who tracks developments in technology to make predictions about the future.

According to Dr Pearson’s report ‘The Future of Sleep’, augmented reality isn’t just for computer games. Commissioned by Travelodge, the report suggests that spending the night in a hotel in the year 2035 might give you more than you bargained for. Far from itchy sheets and noisy neighbours, you might enjoy dream management, contact lenses that play films to send you to sleep, and even virtual love-making.

“You might be in bed with your boyfriend,” suggests Dr Pearson, “And he’s looking at you for five seconds, then he replaces you visually with the last girlfriend he had…and maybe even a couple of pop stars by the time you’ve, err, finished.” And that’s not all. Combining these computer-generated images with some clever electronic ‘playback’ could make virtual love-making as realistic as the real thing. “You could record a sensation electronically,” says Dr Pearson. “Then, during your virtual love-making session you could replay that same sensation and feel it just as you did before, even if your partner isn’t there.”

Virtual technologies aren’t just for computer games and adventures in the bedroom. AR can help surgeons and physicians to better visualise the interior of a patient’s body, usually by superimposing a visual display on top of the skin. “You’re effectively giving surgeons or doctors x-ray vision,” says Professor Anthony Steed, head of the Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics Group at University College London. “They would be able to see things which are either below the surface, or in modalities which they would not be able to perceive…that could be MRI or ultrasound data, something that’s not actually visible to the human eye.”

There are a number of problems to overcome before AR can become the norm in medicine and beyond. “Most of the challenges are in tracking,” says Professor Steed. “It’s not sufficient to rely on GPS. You’d almost certainly need some other location tracking device, and that’s very tough to solve.” Stabilising the position of virtual graphics in relation to real graphics is an issue central to AR technology. But it does mean the zombies in my kitchen were never quite sure where they were, or indeed where I was, which thankfully made it rather difficult to traverse the room and rip my head off.

We might see augmented reality as a novel idea with some interesting applications, but could the lure of a perfect virtual existence prove impossible to resist? Dr Pearson seems to think so: “If I can get up in the morning and put on my magic glasses and have everything I look at augmented so that it’s better…who’s going to say no to that?”

By Kate Hazlehurst