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Are humans the robots of the future?

Whether you want to repair a car or you’ve simply lost your keys: there’s a good chance that in the future there will be an augmented reality (AR) application that can help you. A recent event looking at AR in the workplace (AR op de werkvloer) brought together professionals and students to explore the opportunities and consequences of this futuristic technology: ‘In the future, it will be robots that are making you work hard.’

The event took place on 29 November in the PLNT innovation centre and was organised by the Virtual Reality Learning Lab, Smart071 and the Leiden Honours Academy. It began with plenary presentations about the current state of affairs in the world of AR, followed by brainstorming sessions. In these sessions, Honours students helped private sector professionals to find applications within their own organisation. 

Extension of the human body

Robin de Lange, the host of the event, spoke first: ‘Can augmented reality make people more productive?’, he wondered aloud. De Lange is the founder of the Virtual Reality Learning Lab and works at Leiden University as a researcher and teacher. He explains that long before computers existed, people expected technology to be able to make people smarter: ‘This vision has gradually become reality.’ And it’s become so familiar that we don’t even notice it any more, he says: ‘Technological tools are becoming invisible to us, like a kind of extension of the human body.’

Thomas Ginn from the Centre for Innovation presents the AR application 'AugMedicine – Transplant cases'

Interacting with reality

In this process, augmented reality – where virtual images are inserted into physical reality – might seem the logical next step. But we’ve not reached that stage yet, says Sander Veenhof, an AR expert whose clients have included the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat): ‘People have very high expectations of AR in practice, but I often have reservations.’

One reason is the complexity of the technology. Unlike virtual reality, which takes you into a completely virtual world, augmented reality interacts with the real world. AR glasses need to be able to recognise objects and to project computer images onto them in such a way that all users see them in the same place.

From dictionaries to mazes

Another reason is that useful applications of the technology can be difficult to find, as the event participants discovered for themselves in the brainstorming sessions. One of the pitfalls is that we continue to think in terms of technologies that we already often use. For example, a function like filming – which e.g. enables a second examiner to watch a practical exam along with his/her colleague on the spot – can also be achieved perfectly well with other technologies. Nevertheless, in under an hour, all the subgroups managed to conjure up an idea, such as a virtual dictionary, an application to compare engines and a ‘gamified’ maze, designed to encourage children to take more exercise.

Over the next few weeks, the students – participants in the Bachelor Honours Class AR & Human-Computer Collaboration – will further develop the ideas to create a working prototype as their final project. They include Anne, a Biology student: ‘I think it’s great that we can use augmented reality in a real-life company. That’s what attracted me most to this course.’ Her fellow student Vera (Psychology) is mainly interested in the philosophical aspects: ‘Should you want to have input from these glasses all the time? People can already reach you any time on your mobile, but it’s a lot easier to put that away.’

Drastic changes

She is also afraid that augmented reality will drastically change the economy: ‘Before long, robots might dominate everything and there won’t be so many jobs.’ Sander Veenhof also thinks that technology will ultimately solve the problems it is currently facing: ‘People sometimes say that the robots will take over our work.’ But the opposite danger might actually be lying in wait, warns the expert: ‘We will become the new robots. They will be the ones making you work hard and do what a system commands you.’

The input from the event on 29 November forms the basis for the Honours Class students to develop a working prototype for one of the companies over the next few weeks. This prototype is the final project of the Honours Class and is part of the assessment.

Text: Michiel Knoester
Photography: Virtual Reality Learing Lab
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