The day will come when comfortable augmented reality headsets will replace mobile phones and be worn nearly all the time, says Tim Dwyer, leader of Monash University’s data visualisation and immersive analytics lab. Gardeners wearing one of these headsets might gaze into a garden and see a variety of plants with an overlay of Latin botanical names and habits. Shoppers might see lists of product ingredients, use-by dates and kilojoule content as they move down a supermarket aisle. Gamers might see a dragon peeping round a nearby corner.
“In the last seven or eight years, a new wave of virtual reality and augmented reality technology is taking off and it’s really exciting because it’s realising something we’ve wanted to do for a long, long time,” Dwyer says.
The potential applications are endless. One of Dwyer’s doctoral students is collaborating with pathologists at the Victorian Institute for Forensic Medicine to develop and evaluate prototype augmented reality systems which could potentially obviate the need for a physical autopsy.
In what is likely to be a world first, these AR tools allow pathologists to explore imagery floating in front of them which replicates the physical cadaver, Dwyer says, and allow them to precisely measure the organs and wounds to establish cause of death. “CT imaging and AR tools could recreate the autopsy experience, but virtually,” he says. “It could reduce trauma for families.”
Dwyer’s team is also working on virtual reality projects. Unlike augmented reality systems, VR headsets block out the view of the outside world which can be disconcerting if a user reaches for something that isn’t there, he says, so one project will attempt to recreate the feel of things that are not physically present.
His interest in data visualisation began in the late 90s as a frustrated young computer science graduate working on the Dutch yellow pages in the Netherlands. He was developing what at the time seemed to be complicated software, although it would be considered trivial by today’s standards.
“I wanted to be able to visualise where all the complexity was and where all the relationships between the different parts of this complex system were,” he says. “That got me thinking and inspired me to go back to Australia and do a PhD.”
He found a doctorate supervisor who was an expert in visualisation at the University of Sydney and completed his degree, moving to Monash University for his post-doctoral research. He then ducked over to the US for a few years to work at Microsoft in Seattle, where he built data visualisation tools for developers.
“That was really exciting,” he says. “I was realising the dream I had back in the late 90s when I was trying to visualise I was working on. I finally got to do it for real at Microsoft and build tools for developers to help them see the complexity of their code and talk about it and communicate about it.”