Zurich has become a hub for technology giants researching computer vision and artificial intelligence.
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They’re working on the next generation of personal devices – called Mixed Reality – that could some day replace smartphones.
Imagine wearing glasses from the future. Much like your smartphone today, these allow you to access any information you want. Instead of looking down at your screen, you are looking right in front of you. Holograms are floating in your environment. Arrows displayed on the street could help you find a location, or a hologram of a colleague could appear sitting on an empty chair next to you during a meeting.
Computer vision revolves around the ability of a camera and a computer to do what humans can do with their eyes. Specifically, that means “looking at the world, interpreting the world, and figuring out how to move through the world,” says Marc Pollefeys, a professor of computer science at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ), who is also the director of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality and AI Zurich lab . Existing applications of computer vision include self-driving cars and the ability to unlock your phone by looking at it.
Whereas virtual reality (VR) disconnects the user from the real world, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) enhance it. Pollefeys and his team in Zurich, which includes Microsoft researchers and doctoral students from ETHZ, are focusing on MR.
AR usually refers to “overlaying the world with some information.” MR takes it a step further, Pollefeys explains, by combining the real world with virtual elements, like holograms. Those elements go beyond “just floating text,” he says.
“There is an interaction between the real and virtual – it is one mixed-world representation.”
How is that made possible? Recent advances in deep learning (another area of artificial intelligence), better graphics processing units (GPUs), and big data sets have revolutionised computers’ ability to extract semantic information from images. For example, when a machine sees a chair, it can “know” that it’s a chair. Pollefeys explains that this, together with a good understanding of how to extract geometric information from images enabling devices to track themselves in space, means that computer vision is now able to solve much more complex problems than ever before.
The team at the Microsoft Mixed Reality and AI lab in Zurich is busy researching the future of MR. These days, that future is the HoloLens. It’s a wearable device, shaped like a bulky pair of glasses, with a computer inside. At the moment, the device serves specialised markets, allowing industrial workers to service machines via remote assistance or surgeons to see patient scans during operations. It targets professionals that perform complicated tasks with their hands but need to access information at the same time.
But long-term, Pollefeys thinks that the device “is something that could replace mobile phones”. The desktop computer and laptop were game changers for access to information, but they have little awareness of their environment and struggle to add context. The smartphone, a pocket computer, provides some level of context by, for example, tracking your location.
But mixed-reality devices can go deeper. Equipped with an array of cameras and sensors, they can “really see the context you are in,” says the Mixed Reality Lab director. They understand your environment and what you are doing. They can place information right in front of you, “directly over the world, mixed with the world,” Pollefeys explains.
“It is in that sense much more powerful at helping you do a task.” […]