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Latest AR Development Enables Virtual Element Interactions for Smartphone Users

A new development by researchers from Brown University converts smartphones into augmented reality (AR) portals. The system lets users create virtual furniture, building blocks and several other objects across real backgrounds. Smartphone users can manipulate objects in a way that they could if they were physically present there.

The newly developed system, known as Portal-ble, can be used as a tool for designers, game developers, artists and anyone else to try out AR features. The Brown University team is set to present the project in New Orleans later this month, at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST 2019). The Android source code of the development is available as a free download on the website of the researchers. The iPhone code is set to arrive soon.

Jeff Huang, a Brown University computer science assistant professor, had worked on developing the project with his students. Huang expressed that one of the objectives of the development process was to make augmented reality portable and let people use it anywhere they wanted, without having to put on large headsets. The other objective is to help people experience natural interactions in a virtual setting with their hands.

Freehand Interaction, image source:

According to Huang, the concept of facilitating ‘hands-on’ interactions with Portal-ble, stemmed from disappointing experiences with AR applications such as Pokemon GO. AR applications like Pokemon GO utilises smartphone technology for superimposing virtual elements like game characters into real-life settings. Interacting with the objects or characters on the cell phone requires users to perform screen swipe gestures.

Huang expressed that the swipe method of interaction was not appealing. Explaining what he meant, he said that people have to interact with objects with their hands in the real world i.e. opening doors and windows, lifting and placing down objects. Huang stated that Portal-ble stands out by offering such interactive capabilities.


The Portal-ble platform utilises a minute infrared sensor that can be mounted on the backside of a mobile device. The sensor performs tracking of people’s hand positions about virtual objects. This enables users to perform actions like lifting, stacking, turning and dropping down objects. Users of this system can also perform virtual painting against real-world settings. Huang, accompanied by his students, carried out a demonstration of the system by using it to create a virtual garden.

Huang pointed out that the key technical achievement of the AR project was creating suitable arrangements and response tools to facilitate instinctive interactions with virtual objects.

Huang revealed that applying real physics principles for picking up virtual reality objects is a tough challenge. He said that users often try to grab objects in the wrong place or drive their fingers into the objects. Such observations enabled Huang and his associates to create the system in a way that complements the movement tendencies of people in the real world.

Huang took help from the students of one of his classes to create tasks that they would want to perform in the AR world. The UI and physics of Portal-ble were then tweaked to make suitable adjustments for interactions.

Huang is optimistic that users will download the source code to create their variations.

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