Research in progress: AR and VR improving our reality
Still unimaginable 20 years ago, the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) has since become widely accessible, thanks to the latest technological developments and, above all, researchers who are constantly working on new developments and applications. This is the specialty of 3IE, the digital innovation laboratory at EPITA.
Behind the scenes of the new video episode of the “Recherche en cours, EPITA Laboratoire d’innovation” (Research in progress, EPITA Laboratory of Innovation) series, devoted to the Flowell AR project carried out by 3IE with the Bouygues commercial for Colas to advertise Flowell, its luminous active road marking solution, two members of the laboratory agreed to speak about their daily activities: Benoit Verdier, technical director of the laboratory and Alexandre Chabroux (EPITA class of 2022), 5th year student and member of the structure’s 3D division. A great opportunity to learn more about these innovations before entering the metaverse for good!
How would you define Flowell AR ?
Benoit Verdier: It is an augmented reality application that allows our client, Colas, to better present the added value of its product, in this case a road marking solution for cities to help users better see this signage. Indeed, standard road markings such as crosswalks or bicycle paths are usually in a neutral color and not always visible to the majority of people. To solve this problem, Colas wanted to develop a road marking system incorporating LEDs. We therefore worked on this augmented reality application to enable Colas to simulate and visualize what this new marking would look like using a tablet. The application includes the entire catalog of components and hence allows users in the field to display the ones they want and to configure them – size, inclination, spacing of the strips, quantity, flashing speed, colors… Of course, to achieve this, we chose to create the application from A to Z, starting with customer interviews and brainstorming in terms of the best interface, to the actual realization, including all technical steps – choice of interfaces, performance…
How is this application innovative?
Benoit Verdier: Although we see it more and more often, augmented reality technology is still quite recent, and not frequently used to create applications for a company. Generally speaking, the public has an image of augmented reality similar to that of a gadget, like when cereal brands allow you to see their mascot in 3D on the front of the package, using your smartphone. However, this technology can be a true source of added value, which is what we wanted to demonstrate with this application. The challenge was to produce an app that could easily handle the full complexity of a product offering. Without this type of application, to reach such a realistic level of simulation, we would have to call on a computer graphics specialist to retrieve images of each terrain, then calibrate each component to place them exactly on the ground before waiting for a certain amount of time to obtain the results. Now, thanks to this project, any salesperson can go to the site and immediately place the components in position to show how important this product is! And it saves a lot of time.
This project is really in line with the initial mission of 3IE, isn’t it?
Benoit Verdier: Yes, it is! Our laboratory is mainly interested in researching the uses and the utilization of technology, rather than reviewing the way in which technical fundamentals are made. This means that we are not looking for new ways to detect specific things, but rather developing applications, beginning with how they will be used. That’s how we were able to develop this project. We began by first talking to Colas about the purpose of the product, the daily life of their employees, the problems addressed and also the profile of future users. We had to be able to offer a reliable, practical and easily accessible solution to people who are not necessarily familiar with augmented reality or used to using a tablet every day, let alone in the field.
What is your definition of research?
Benoit Verdier: As IT is exciting and continues to extensively develop, our jobs at 3IE consist of finding a practical use for these new technologies. We can view this as making the digital transition and paving a path to a new era.
Alexandre Chabroux: For me, research is the desire to do things differently. It doesn’t necessarily mean revising or revolutionizing everything, but rather making small changes in order to make improvements. It means asking the right questions to discover new avenues to explore and find better directions to move forward. Moreover, if I had to advise a student who was hesitating between joining an EPITA laboratory or a research team, I would tell him or her to definitely choose research because, personally, it has allowed me to discover a brand new world and completely change my vision of the IT profession. In the 3D department, we have to create applications using either VR or AR, and as a student, this allows me to be in contact with professionals and different professions – developers, of course, but also modelers, designers, artists, project managers… I gain experience from each one of them, which enriches my vision of the IT world. Above all, working on 3D was an eye-opener: before joining 3IE, I didn’t know anything about this field, and now I know that this is where I want to work. I found my calling!
Precisely, Alexandre, before entering EPITA, did you imagine that you could work in a laboratory like 3IE?
Alexandre Chabroux: Not at all! To be honest, before applying to EPITA, I wanted to become an architect! I got into programming in high school when I started programming on my calculator during my junior year. At first, it was just to pass the time, but I quickly realized that I really enjoyed it. In my last year of high school, I chose to study computer science and decided that this is the field I wanted to work in. However, it wasn’t until my third year that I began to consider the possibility of joining the 3IE teams.
Alexandre Chabroux: This happened in two stages. In fact, during the third year of the program, the school’s laboratories present their activities and invite us to join them. At that time, I was already interested, but I preferred to abstain as I was afraid of overdoing it by combining classes and laboratory work. However, the idea remained in my head and when, at the end of that same year, I saw an internship offer at 3IE, I applied for it and was accepted. After my internship, they proposed that I stay on, while continuing my studies. In fact, today, I work mainly on the development of application components, but that encompasses many things: it can be gameplay in VR to code interactions with an object or a button, create interfaces, etc. For the Colas application, I worked on the display and dimensioning of technical components to be replaced. When the user wants to simulate a crosswalk on the road, he can easily modulate the crossing, and the application automatically recalculates its height, its size, its inclination, etc.
Is allowing students to work in a laboratory an advantage for future engineers and researchers alike?
Benoit Verdier: Of course! Working in the laboratory of an engineering school like EPITA is already a great advantage for me: I am not left in the dark! It’s an environment that gives you access to new technologies, allows you to learn about them… and it’s also a place for sharing. In contact with the students, you are confronted with new ways of using these technologies and discover new possibilities: you are never locked into a routine or a single way of thinking. It is necessarily stimulating on both sides!
Alexandre Chabroux: I agree. What I do in the laboratory, I don’t do outside! Indeed, students don’t necessarily have access to 3D, AR, VR, and the associated tools and technologies. In addition to this, the other interest of working in the lab lies in the exploration of new subjects and, above all, the fact of being able to work with different skilled individuals on projects. It is also very enriching and provides us with a more professional vision because our work must, in addition to being technically efficient, also satisfy a real client. These are the constraints and requirements that differ from a student project!