Improved GPS could untether VR and revolutionize geolocation

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Measuring the improved accuracy of a GPS-enabled VR headset (Image: University of Texas)

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A team from the University of Texas wants to create virtual reality and augmented reality systems that can better integrate with the real world. Along the way, they just might revolutionize the geolocation systems we all use on our mobile devices.

We first met Todd Humphreys and his students in the Cockrell School of Engineering a few years ago at South by Southwest in Austin. At the time they were working with a goofy, bulky proof-of-concept augmented reality system that was about the size of a desktop computer with a dish-sized GPS antenna sticking out of it. It seemed like the team was making interesting advances, but was still way behind an augmented reality trend that was dominated by buzz around Google Glass at the time.

The team's older, bulkier augmented reality prototype from 2013 (Photo: University of Texas)

Two years later, Glass is on hiatus, and Humphreys' group has a new software-based system that could improve the accuracy of the GPS enough to open up a wide array of new uses for mobile devices, virtual reality headsets, automotive navigation and perhaps even the next generation of Google Glass.

For years now, the team members have been working on harnessing what's called carrier-phase differential GPS (CDGPS), which can be accurate down to a centimeter. Previous prototypes like the one we saw in person required a big, clunky, expensive antenna to achieve this, but now they claim to have a breakthrough software-defined GPS receiver that can attain the same level of accuracy using the cheaper antennas currently found in mobile devices.

Humphreys envisions using this technology to enable drones to deliver packages to a hyper-specific spot and to improve automotive collision systems, but his team is especially interested in merging real-time geolocation data with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, which currently does not use GPS (and is tethered to a PC), limiting it to indoor use and accuracy within only about two-to-three feet (roughly .75 meters).

"Imagine games where, rather than sit in front of a monitor and play, you are in your backyard actually running around with other players," he says.

Humphreys and his team are now working on a specialized receiver called GRID, that extracts centimeter-level accuracy from mobile device antennas. The receiver currently operates outside the phone, but is expected to eventually run on a smartphone's internal processor. The team has recently spun off a startup called Radiosense that is working with Samsung to develop a snap-on accessory that will provide more accurate location information for devices, including VR headsets.

Watch the demonstration video below to see the technology in action.

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