Smart Glasses as an everyday object

Humboldt Professor Dieter Schmalstieg is working on augmented reality projects - with the aim of making people's lives easier.
Photo: Elbmotion / Humboldt Foundation

Humboldt Professor Dieter Schmalstieg does research at the University of Stuttgart.

Dieter Schmalstieg, Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Visual Computing at the University of Stuttgart, has been awarded the Humboldt Professorship. Germany’s most prestigious international research award was awarded to top researchers who have chosen to join German universities from abroad. Schmalstieg is working on augmented reality projects – with the aim of making people’s lives easier.

“The Humboldt Professorship is a great honor and source of motivation,” says computer scientist Dieter Schmalstieg, who was presented with the Humboldt Professorship award by Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Federal Minister of Education and Research; and Robert Schlögl, President of the Humboldt Foundation, in Berlin on 13 May 2024. In fall 2023, he moved from Graz University of Technology to the VISUS Visualization Research Center at the University of Stuttgart. According to Schmalstieg, the department offers excellent working conditions and is a beacon in the research landscape. He was already familiar with VISUS before moving to Stuttgart, from joint projects with the institute’s founder Thomas Ertl. “That’s how I knew I would fit in very well here,” he remarks.

Schmalstieg is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of visualization, the visualization of digital information. What motivates him? “My aim is to provide people with better access to information. I want to make computer technology easier to use, more varied, more exciting, and more rewarding.

3D instead of 2D

To this end, he is developing augmented reality technologies for smart glasses. Unlike virtual reality, where you are completely immersed in virtual worlds, augmented reality (AR) means that virtual elements are projected into the real environment. Schmalstieg has been working on this “augmented reality” for almost 30 years.

The researcher believes that AR glasses could shape everyday life in the future in the same way that smartphones do today. “We’re all constantly staring at these small screens. But cell phones are very limited when it comes to making information accessible.” Take online shopping, for example. If someone wants to buy a cushion cover for their sofa, they can turn the product around on the screen and enlarge it. Or they alternate between looking at the real sofa and the virtual object and try to imagine whether the two fit together. But the spatial context is missing: The virtual cushion placed as a 3D object on the real sofa. This leap into three-dimensional viewing can be achieved using AR glasses. “They offer a higher quality, more comprehensible user experience than cell phones – simply because objects that are best displayed spatially can be viewed in this way.”

The Humboldt professor is currently working on an AR application that helps with assembling pieces of furniture, such as chests of drawers. If you are careless and twist the boards by 180 degrees, the drill holes no longer fit – everything has to be unscrewed again. The application is specifically designed to detect such errors, ensuring they’re caught early – this makes life a lot easier, says Schmalstieg.

AR as a problem solver – even for future construction practices

When is an AR application good? When virtual reality merges with the real environment in such a way that it seems to belong there. This photorealism is known from special effects in films. However, Schmalstieg highlights an increased necessity for research aimed at enhancing information comprehensibility. This is about problems that cannot be solved by simply looking at something. On construction sites, for example, AR glasses can provide valuable services by rendering visible what would otherwise remain unseen to the naked eye. They can show where cables run in the wall or ceiling and whether electricity is flowing through them. Or they display virtual safety lines that must not be crossed.

Schmalstieg will work in the Cluster of Excellence “Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture” (IntCDC) at the University of Stuttgart, where he will develop an AR application for robot-assisted house construction. Building designs are becoming increasingly complex; new timber construction techniques, for example, require a very high degree of precision, explains the researcher. Humans are becoming more and more dependent on the cooperation of robots – and this is exactly where AR smart glasses come into play. “When humans and robots work together, good coordination is required. Humans must understand what the robot is doing, and vice versa. AR smart glasses excel in facilitating this human-machine interaction. They provide information about everything important that is happening on the construction site.”

Schmalstieg wants his applications to help people cope better with everyday life and work. “I am not responsible for assessing technological impact. But because I’m dealing with human-machine interfaces, I must also consider what role humans play in the equation. Whether the technology I develop has a certain value.”

Uncomfortable devices

What happens next? AR and virtual reality have existed as business models for several years and tech companies have been marketing smart glasses for over a decade. Are they on the edge of a breakthrough? Schmalstieg believes that, sooner or later, “radical change” will come. “Then it will be normal to wear smart glasses. After all, we all want to access mobile information at any time. In the long term, cell phones won’t be able to keep up with smart glasses.” However, for these technologies to truly permeate everyday life, they must also be affordable, lightweight, and convenient. There is still a lot of work to do, says the Humboldt professor. Some of the current devices are a little heavy on the nose.

About Prof. Dr. Dieter Schmalstieg

Dieter Schmalstieg, a native of Austria, received his doctorate and habilitation from the Vienna University of Technology. In 2004, he took up a professorship at the Graz University of Technology. From 2012 to 2023, he headed the Institute of Computer Graphics and Vision, which has grown considerably under his leadership. Since October 2023, he has been Humboldt Professor at VISUS at the University of Stuttgart. Schmalstieg is a Fellow of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and was awarded the IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award in 2012, and the START-Preis, Austria’s most highly endowed and recognized science award for young researchers.

About the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

The Alexander von Humboldt Professorship is Germany’s most highly endowed international research award, which honors internationally leading scientists and scholars who have previously worked abroad. The award is granted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. It gives German universities the opportunity to attract top international researchers to their institutions, to offer internationally competitive framework conditions, and to raise their profile in the face of global competition.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Prof. Dr. Dieter Schmalstieg, Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Visual Computing, Visualization Research Center of the University of Stuttgart (VISUS), tel.: +49 711 685-88331, email: dieter.schmalstieg@visus.uni-stuttgart.de,
https://www.visus.uni-stuttgart.de/

Weitere Informationen:

https://www.uni-stuttgart.de/en/university/news/all/Smart-Glasses-as-an-everyday…

Media Contact

Lydia Lehmann Stabsstelle Hochschulkommunikation
Universität Stuttgart

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