Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2010)

Olymipic AR

By: Barbara Robertson
Total immersion's sporty new applications help yahoo educate consumers.

With the skill of a skater executing a triple Lutz, three companies Yahoo, Total Immersion, and Helios created a technically innovative augmented reality (AR) application for fans and athletes at the 2010 Olympics. “We probably developed the project in 30 days,” says Greg Davis, North American general manager for Total Immersion. The goal? “We wanted an innovative, fun way to make an audience aware of Yahoo features in a mobile phone,” says Barbara O’Connor, vice president of Yahoo’s global consumer marketing.

Helios installed the interactive AR experience outside Yahoo’s “Fancouver” venue in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. Total Immersion created the experience actually, two experiences using its D’Fusion software.

Both experiences relied on 46-inch, thin-bezel Samsung monitors installed in “windows” on the outside walls of the Fancouver building. “You can see that they’re fabricated, wrapped in vinyl,” says Davis. Inside, powering the experiences, are dual-core Pentium-based “black boxes” equipped with AMD ATI 4870 graphics cards.

For the first experience, News, Weather, and Sports, a prosumer Canon HD video camera points down from above the display window. When people walk up to the display, they see three options: If they stand on the left, a fedora pops onto their head and a larger-than-life mobile phone shows a news feed with the latest sport scores. Stand in the middle and they see a weather report while decked out in appropriate gear—an umbrella hat, sunglasses, or wool hat. Stand on the right, and they’ll find themselves wearing a baseball cap with a country flag and looking at a live feed with the most current medal count.

To do this, Total Immersion’s D’Fusion software runs image-recognition algorithms on the incoming video stream to search for a face. “When it finds the face, it knows it must place a digital object relative to the target,” Davis says. And, it knows whether to place the correct objects in the left, middle, or right screen.

“It’s tracking the X axis,” Davis says. “So as the person moves, we can put virtual environments around them that are reactive. For quite a while we’ve been stuck with little interpretations of face tracking and seeing the same execution over and over again—glasses, beards, hats, things that stay close to the face. We’re using the face to track and put things on it, but we’re also putting things around the face. As someone moves left or right, we can have things move around them.”


This visitor at Yahoo’s Fancouver venue during the 2010 Olympics knows the weather report calls for snow because a woolen cap popped onto his head in augmented reality.

The second experience was a snowboarding AR video game. Here’s how it worked: Yahoo had people stationed near the venue handing out cards. On one side were instructions about how to connect to Yahoo mobile; the other side was an interaction device. When people walk up to the screen, it’s as if they’re looking into a mirror, but, as in the first experience, it’s actually a video projection from the HD camera mounted beneath the screen.

 “When someone holds the card with the snowboard up to the window, a mobile phone spins down from the top of the screen, with a snowboard character stuck to it,” Davis explains. “The character lands on the card. Once the system is initialized, that is, once it has successfully tracked the card, that window shrinks down to the center bottom of the screen. All around is an immersive video game.”

The viewer is now in the video game, controlling the movement of a snowboarding character with the card. Viewers can see themselves steering the character in the little window at the bottom. If the system loses the tracking, that window expands until the software tracks the card again, and then it shrinks back down.

“We’ve created experiences before where you see a tracking object and a 3D character attached to it doing some kind of animation,” Davis says. “No big deal. What is different with this experience is that there’s a game engine behind it. The 3D character is still attached to a tracking object, but we’re incorporating the character into a video game.”

Two teams of 3D artists, engineers, and project managers at Total Immersion developed and delivered the experiences, with a separate team working on incorporating the real-time feeds. The 3D artists used Autodesk’s Maya. All the other software is proprietary.

Helios handled the logistical support, hardware, installation, and monitoring of the application.

“We’re constantly making sure the system is running perfectly,” says Jon Fox, chief creative officer at Helios, “including the real-time uploads.” Helios had a crew on the ground for the installation and for monitoring at first, but soon switched to remote monitoring using an Internet connection.

Yahoo considers the experience a great success. “We were thrilled with it,” says O’Connor. “People got to experience a product demo without [Yahoo] doing a product demo. We even saw people taking pictures of their friends wearing the funny hats and interacting with the experiences. It was terrific.”
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