Why is occlusion aware AR important? Most of the AR systems only track sparse geometric features but do not compute depth for all pixels. For this reason, most AR effects are only overlays that can never be occluded by real objects. There are a lot of people working on new algorithms that propagate sparse depth to every pixel in almost real time.
What is occlusion?
Sometimes a virtual object displayed in augmented reality does not integrate properly with the real environment, causing the hoped-for illusion of immersion to vanish. We then have an occlusion problem. It is explained by the fact that on the screen a virtual object always appears above the real world.
Take the case of a virtual statue placed in a gallery. When a visitor walks behind the artwork, the AR experience is not disrupted as the statue appears well in front of them.
On the other hand, if the person stands between the tablet and the work, the illusion vanishes because the statue is superimposed on the visitor instead of being masked by its presence.
Likewise, a virtual object placed inside a real object may also experience an occlusion problem. Sometimes the illusion of augmented reality can work well from one angle, but not at all from another. A virtual object may pass in front of a real element which, seen in profile, would be supposed to hide it.
Solutions to occlusion problems
Many occlusion problems can be circumvented as long as they are integrated well upstream of the reflection, from the design of the AR experience. Faced with the variety of cases encountered, there exist a range of solutions.
Place the object strategically
Sometimes an occlusion problem can be resolved by placing the virtual object in a well-designed location. The application developed for the National Museum of Singapore makes it possible to display a whale skeleton and then the whale itself, at real size. The experience was placed under a high glass ceiling, high above the visitors. By pointing the tablet towards the canopy, the animal can be seen without risk of interference with walls or the public, despite its imposing volume.
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And tomorrow ?…
Each AR experience raises a particular occlusion problem requiring a specific solution. In the near future, technical developments – in particular the sensitivity of sensors and the power of processors – will undoubtedly facilitate the resolution of this type of problem. The alliance of creativity and programming will improve augmented reality until it becomes, perhaps one day, almost undetectable.
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