Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR) have fascinated consumers and producers alike for several years now. Consider Pokémon Go, the mobile game that became a global phenomenon in the summer of 2017. For most users, this was their first experience with VR/AR, possibly without even realizing it. The explosion of its popularity showed creators and investors the possibilities of the technology. 

Today, VR/AR are for more than games and entertainment. The geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) community eyes the technology to improve data gathering and representation. During the second day of USGIF’s GEOINT Community Forum, The Geospatial Metaverse – Infrastructure, Tradecraft and Applications, a group of expert panelists from the VR/AR world gathered to discuss current and future trends of VR and AR.

Moderated by Mark Tatgenhorst, Director of the Geospatial Innovation Center at T-REX in St. Louis, the panel dove into several topics related to GEOINT and VR/AR. What has changed to accelerate the adoption of virtual and augmented reality? How has the pandemic affected its adoption? How is VR/AR being used today, and why should decision-makers care about it? What is the most exciting part about the relationship between GEOINT and VR/AR? 

Key to the contribution was panelist James Dean, an Immersive Technology Applications Engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. Dean recently wrote a scholarly article regarding the application of AR to simulation and data analysis, comparing it to a PC workstation. When asked about the change in adoption of VR/AR, Dean noted that its acceptance was slow to start, as companies were unsure of how to use it; however, game engines have helped make it much easier. “What’s changed in the last several years is that these game engines … have been redeveloping and recreating the APIs, the software libraries, that makes it easier for developers to stop from learning how to do things to actually doing those things,” he said.

Moving toward a COVID-19 discussion, Chantel Benson shared how Adobe has used the pandemic to accelerate adoption of VR/AR. Benson is the Senior Product Manager for Adobe Aero, an augmented reality system enabling creatives to tell interactive stories with digital content set in the real world. “What we’ve seen in the past year has been this huge trend in the retail side…and also the education sector,” Benson explained. Fewer customers have been shopping in-person at retail stores, with more people working and consuming remotely, which has driven demand for an in-store-like experience. Benson also mentioned that teachers are also looking to leverage VR/AR to engage in deeper learning with students.  

Mike Appelbaum, CEO of Immersive Wisdom, a leading provider of real-time immersive 3D geospatial collaboration software, provided insight into how VR/AR is being used today, and why it should matter to decision-makers. He is a technology entrepreneur and inventor with more than 20 years of experience designing, developing, and deploying computer software in highly demanding customer environments. Appelbaum discussed that there is a cultural change occurring that involves virtual technology. “The mindset is that these technologies do matter,” he said. “For education and retail…the same applies to the government… To really have success here, we need to put these devices in as many hands as possible at the lowest cost possible, especially for the government.” 

One key factor was how to deal with remote classified work. Appelbaum stated that there is not as great of a need for in-person work from secure government facilities anymore, citing remote classified collaboration on Air Force Advanced Battle Management System as an example.  

The relationship that GEOINT has with VR/AR was at the heart of the panelist discussion, with Brian Tomaszewski leading the response. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Information Sciences and Technologies at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and has numerous published research articles on GIS, disaster management, and refugee affairs. Tomaszewski discussed how real-world data can be used for training and simulation in many different environments. AR can be used for assessment with storm damage and map navigation of indoor buildings – think of a firefighter using a tablet to get the layout of a building before dangerous entry, for example.

While the many uses of VR/AR are promising, there are still challenges ahead. Dean mentioned that AR headsets are limited and self-contained in terms of computing power – one of the main hindrances that still exists with the technology. “If we had the infrastructure to stream large datasets (5G),” he said, “then the landscape can change to thinking about AR glasses where you pick a dataset that you want to stream… I don’t know if 5G will be that infrastructure or if it is something in the future, but it is coming.” 

The final question given to the panelists involved what current undergraduates, graduates, and anyone else looking to improve their skillset could do to get into VR/AR in the GIS realm. Each panelist agreed that the most important first step is to be brave and unafraid of stepping into something outside your comfort zone. Benson brought up a key point for people within the industry that have little experience with VR/AR: she encouraged people to not use the technology just “for the novelty of it.” If you are going to use the tech, she posed, ask why are you using this medium? Why is this medium the right way to solve the problem? 

Virtual and augmented reality finally have their place among technology in the 21st century. Game engines have made the technology easier and more manageable to work with, only increasing the useful range of VR/AR. The GEOINT realm can use the new reality forms to display, visualize, and stream large datasets over 5G technology. VR/AR is not a thing of the future or solely purposed for leisure and entertainment anymore; real-world applications are available today, and the future is only getting brighter for geospatial intelligence.  

USGIF thanks Mark Tatgenhorst, James Dean, Chantel Benson, Mike Appelbaum, and Brian Tomaszewski for their vibrant discussion about the possibilities of VR/AR adoption in GEOINT.

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Posted by Brad Curl