College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Bringing virtual reality into the real world

A German mechanical engineer is using his background in computer vision and object tracking to design software programs that may one day materialize lifelike 3-D models.

Rafael Radkowski
Rafael Radkowski

Is the table in front of you a real or digital copy? Right now, you might be looking at a four-legged, rectangular figure made of wood and metal. You probably feel a cool, smooth sensation as you run your fingers across its surface.

In the future, however, Rafael Radkowski says you might not be able to distinguish – at least visually – real-world objects from 3-D models, thanks to a technology called augmented reality.

“Unlike virtual reality, which connects the user to the digital world, augmented reality projects the digital world into the real world using 3-D models,” said Radkowski, a German researcher who recently joined Iowa State’s faculty as an assistant professor in mechanical engineering.

Radkowski received a Diploma in Engineering (2003), which is the equivalent to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and his Ph.D. (2006) in mechanical engineering from Universität Paderborn in Germany.

His main research subject is augmented reality and object tracking in particular. He’s been working in the field since starting his research career in Paderborn as well as during previous visits to Iowa State.

In 2011, Radkowski came to ISU as a visiting researcher where he studied computer vision and natural feature tracking for about five months. In 2012, he returned as a postdoc and worked on several research projects, with a focus on visual natural perception.

Standard displays only permit a fixed view – you have the same view no matter where you move your head. Whereas natural visual perception simulates depth cues and motion parallax, allowing us to see in 3-D.

“The view within the screen itself shifts to your perspective in real time,” Radkowski says. “When everything adapts to your view, you can better perceive 3-D objects on a screen – sort of like looking through a window.”

In the engineering field, this research could help engineers whose visual perception relies on depth cues to better estimate distances, sizes and spatial dimensions of objects.

Radkowski will continue studying natural visual perception at Iowa State, continuing a grant he received at Paderborn. He aims to finish it by the end of 2014. He is also designing software programs that can visualize 3-D models – using projectors and displays – for assembly assistance in the manufacturing process.

Instead of written text, imagine interactive 3-D models that float atop a workbench and give step-by-step instructions to put parts together into product, like a circuit board.

“I program the software so it can identify and subtract parts in the physical world,” he explained. The software will be able to recognize if the “user grabs part A and equips it to part B in the correct procedural order.”

This technology is still developing and his current research is focusing on a proof-of-concept prototype to show the positive effects of simulated depth cues. In addition to his research, Radkowski is teaching ME 325 Mechanical Component Design and HCI 571X Augmented Reality this fall.

ME 325 teaches student about the fundamental mechanical components of engineering design such as shafts, nuts, bolts, ball bearings and explains how to design these components so that they are safe. HCI 571X introduces augmented reality, computer vision-based tracking and interaction techniques, allowing students to virtually combine the physical and digital world.

Right now, Radkowski is doing studies to prove we can turn 3-D models into more lifelike copies. It may not be long before we’re using holograms, like those in Star Wars, to communicate, but who knows? Anything is possible.