LetzSCIENCE: The AR perspective

 

The FNR’s new communication campaign LetzSCIENCE is the first campaign in Luxembourg to blend traditional ‘postering’ with AR technology. Striking science images intrigue passers-by, who by scanning a QR code can discover a real-time 3D model overlaid on top of the image. People get to play around with a new, interactive technology and learn about research in Luxembourg in the process. We speak to Matthieu Bracchetti from Virtual Rangers, the start-up that created the AR experiences for letzSCIENCE, about the challenges in the creation process, and how Luxembourg is AR-ready.

Discover the AR experiences on letzscience.lu

The FNR first sat down with Virtual Rangers in early 2020 to find out if the concept of combining a science image with an educational AR experience would be feasible in the way we imagined it and what the options would be.

“I was immediately intrigued about the project”, says Matthieu Bracchetti, CEO and founder of Virtual Rangers, a Luxembourg start-up launched in 2017, specialised in virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

“We were working mostly on training solution, entertainment, cultural and building projects and very interested in building an experience around a science image, something we had not done before.”

Step one: Can we do it?

The first step was to find out which of the images we had in our pre-selection for this new campaign would be viable AR experience contenders – can the movement be replicated in a 3D model? Is the image itself a viable tracker for an AR experience?

We wanted as detailed as possible real-time 3D models, but we also wanted the AR experiences to be accessible without the need to download an app[1]. For the main physical presence of the campaign, we were targeting people who are waiting for the tram: having to download an app first would have meant valuable time lost. Most smartphones can easily scan a QR code, either directly from the phone camera or through general QR apps.

This posed a big challenge: We were asking Virtual Rangers to create an interactive, detailed AR experience, with the big restriction it had to be able to run in a web browser.

“We had to do as much as possible using as little space as possible to get the great results we got”

“While you are working with size limitations on a native app, you are not as restricted in space on an app as you are when the experience has to be able to run smoothly over a web browser.”

“For this particular project, it was important for the FNR that the AR experience could be launched with a simple scan of a QR-code, rather than by downloading a specially created app. Testing showed it was possible to build a less detailed, but easier to access 3D AR experience on a web browser. Therefore, we determined a web browser-based delivery was the best option for this project.”

“It was a challenge to transform a 3D real-time model, that on a native app would take up at least 150MB, into a web-browser friendly 5MB, also working with a completely different type of rendering. We had to do as much as possible using as little space as possible to get the great results we got.”

A screenshot of one of the AR experiences

The creation process included a story boarding on how to animate the 3D models behind each science image, defining specifics such as speed, effects and colour. The model begins as a 3D sketch on a piece of paper, before it is digitalised and animated. The final steps are texture and lighting.

Prototyping and testing phase key

“We gave ourselves a lot of time for prototyping – working with web AR solutions was a new way for us to do augmented reality experiences, as was the medium. With AR there can be issues such as reflective surfaces disrupting the tracking, the size of the 3D model, the quality of the tracker: these things can destroy the AR experience.”

As the design for the campaign took shape, we were ready to test the QR codes and AR experiences in real-life conditions. IP, our advertising partner in the letzSCIENCE project, were very understanding of the necessity to test the campaign in real conditions.

The camera must track the image the AR is based on in order to work: if the image is obscured or distorted by reflection this is bad news. During the testing phase with our advertising partners for the project (IP), we discovered this was indeed an issue when we placed the posters under the glass – an issue resolved by placing the posters on top of the glass, like a sticker.

Is Luxembourg AR-ready?

Issues like reflection were no more, but another point we considered: People are not used to interacting with ads, let alone augmented reality posters at a stop.

“I was a bit nervous. While a great job was done making the instructions on the images clear, AR is not something people in Luxembourg are accustomed to using. People are getting more used to QR codes, but not everyone knows how they work and AR is a new technology.

”There are not many cases of it being used in public in Luxembourg in this way – it was a kind of premiere.

“The engagement numbers on the letzSCIENCE AR experiences are incredible – especially considering AR is still new in Luxembourg. The campaign has been a huge success and it has been great seeing people’s reactions, many of them trying AR for the first time in their lives. The fact that people of all ages are using it also speaks to great user design.

Matthieu (second from right) showing passers-by an AR experience at the letzSCIENCE street event

Now was the time to run this type of campaign – 1 or 2 years ago this would not have been possible, or as popular. People are reading more and more about AR, but most have never had a chance to try it. Additionally, most people in Luxembourg have smartphones – Luxembourg is AR-ready.”

Matthieu explains that AR technology is developing rapidly – AR glasses are only a few years away from becoming widely accessible. “There is also huge potential for AR to assist in the industrial sector, in the hospital sector, as well as in science,” Matthieu explains.

As for the potential for AR to become widely used in Luxembourg, Matthieu says:

“The technology is ready. It is a matter of content and use cases. You can sell the best tv, but if you cannot watch anything on it, people do not want it. The FNR’s initiative is a great way to use AR technology, there is great content and a message behind it. There are also other initiatives on the way, but in my opinion it is important to have a high quality of standard, otherwise people will stop using it.”

About letzSCIENCE

The purpose of the letzSCIENCE AR campaign is to raise awareness of research in Luxembourg, as well as the FNR’s role in funding the majority of it. The challenge: to do in an innovative way. How better to do this than by playing on people’s curiosity and invite them to discover, this also being at the heart of science? The main physical rollout of the campaign was 41 posters displayed across the 11 stops of the tram network in Luxembourg City/ Kirchberg from 30 July to 10 August. A6 card versions of the posters have also been produced, to enable people to ‘take the experience home’ and launch it anytime. The cards can be ordered for free on letzscience.lu.

Stephen Korytko (advertising consultant); STUDIO Polenta (graphic design); Cropmark (web design); Virtual Rangers (augmented reality); IP (advertising partner). Special thanks to Luxvisual for the flexibility in the production of the AR posters.

More about AR and Virtual Rangers

Virtual Rangers have worked with Centre Hospitalier on a VR headset for children getting treatment or injections: They put on the VR headset and are virtually surrounded an entertaining situation to completely distract them.

AR was actually invented back in the 60s,” Matthieu explains, adding:

First it was only sounds, then they added pictures and most recently 3D animations. We are arriving at a great time to roll it out for everyone to experience. We are also working with Musée des mines here in Luxembourg on a range of AR experiences.”

In the 3 years since their launch, Virtual Rangers have already worked on 46 projects in AR and VR across training, entertainment, the cultural sector and construction sector. They also give lessons to students in some Universities in how to build AR or VR experiences.

Before launching Virtual Rangers, my focus was on training using new technologies. I worked more on AR and VR prototypes. In 2017, we felt the time was right to launch an AR and VR company and a few months in we already had some great projects.”

[1] The AR experiences are hosted on ZapWorks/WebAR. They can be scanned with any QR scanner, but there is also the voluntary option to install the Zappar app.

letzSCIENCE: The beauty of science meets augmented reality

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