Microsoft lab working on multiperson augmented reality

Project Comradre will allow multiple people, each wearing an AR headset, to interact with the same virtual object.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

Enlarge Image
A handshake goes up in flames. Microsoft

If augmented reality could be a shared experience, it could change the way we will use the technology.

Something along these lines is currently in development at a Microsoft laboratory run by Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of VR since the 1980s through his company VPL Research. The project, called Comradre, allows multiple users to share virtual- and augmented-reality experiences, reports MIT Technology Review.

Because virtual reality takes place in a fully digital environment, it is not hugely difficult to put multiple users into the same virtual instance at the same time, wirelessly synced across multiple headsets.

Augmented reality, which overlays digital artifacts over the real world, is a little trickier to share. A digital artefact needs to be able to be viewed from multiple angles in real time. This means the headsets need to be able to communicate with each other about their relative positions while also tracking the movements of the wearer's head to keep the digital object anchored. In some cases, they'll also need to track the movements of the wearers' bodies so they can interact with the digital object.

In a presentation at Siggraph 2015, Lanier showed a video of his team's work to date. They're using headsets of their own creation, augmented-reality devices they call "Reality Mashers," and not, it should be noted, the HoloLens augmented reality headset Microsoft currently has in development. This is because the project is also about creating the hardware.

"The project is called Comradre, and the point is to study social or multiuser applications in mixed reality, also known as augmented reality, as well as in general the potential for rapid prototyping of equipment for mixed reality. The headsets you'll see here are called Reality Mashers," Lanier explained.

One of the Reality Mashers. Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

"They exist in many forms. They have excellent performance, our field-of-view exceed 60 degrees in all cases. Sometimes the display is a smartphone, sometimes it's a little display attached to a gaming laptop and a backpack, but it's always untethered. Our trackers are sometimes OptiTracks, sometimes other trackers."

They communicate with each other using a low-latency wireless LAN.

The team consists primarily of doctoral and masters students interning at the lab, each of whom developed a different application for Comradre to demonstrate its potential as a social, education and productivity tool. Andrea Stevenson Won, a doctoral student at Stanford University, developed software that responds to physical interactions with virtual effects, such as bubbles that appear when two people touch hands, or flames the appear when they shake hands.

Enlarge Image
Augmented reality turns this block into a virtual toy house. Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

Victor Mateevitsi, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, demonstrated a system that would allow multiple developers to stream their work to a shared augmented reality environment, allowing them to collaborate on a project.

Other students include Andrzej Banburski of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, who demonstrated a system for visualising equations in an augmented-reality environment that mathematicians could then use to work together; and Judith Amores and Xavier Benavides of the MIT Media Lab, who developed toy blocks that turn into virtual objects such as houses in an augmented-reality space that children can play in.

Even more extraordinarily, the team compiled all this in a very short time frame, which means multiuser augmented reality could be closer than it seems.

"What I want you to know is that this entire lab started from scratch with nothing just two months before this filming, so what you see here is just two months of work," Lanier said.

Editor's note: According to UploadVR, Siggraph, which does not allow filming at its conference, does not want the video disseminated. We have not linked the video here in compliance with Siggraph's wishes.