Adobe project lets you ‘walk’ into photos
Adobe project allows viewers to look at PDFs more deeply.
When Adobe Systems summer intern Laurel Warrell got the assignment to figure out how using virtual reality goggles would change reading a static PDF file, even she thought the concept was “boring.”
But what she and a small team of senior Adobe researchers have come up with could, in the future, transform PDFs into another way to share an interactive experience.
Adobe this week showed off a prototype of a virtual reality version of the PDF, the portable document format that has become ubiquitous for storing and sharing pages of text, photos and graphics in their original form. The San Jose company says there are about 3 billion PDFs out in the world. If anything, that number seems low.
In an exclusive demonstration for The Chronicle, principal scientist Walter Chang showed how a PDF report on the abandoned Cold Warera Teufelsberg spy station in Berlin could be turned into a tour that makes you feel like you’re standing in the decrepit, graffiti-filled buildings.
The experience starts with a giant wall of three standard-looking PDFs. However, the virtual visitor can tap the photo on one PDF and be virtually transported into the old building.
The photo captured a 360-degree view, with icons to tap using the VR interface. Those icons reveal pertinent historical notes and social
media comments about various points within the building. There are also virtual doors that let the tourist jump to other 360-degree photos inside the old spy center.
Last summer, Adobe asked Warrell, in her second year of a master’s degree program in human computer interaction at Georgia Tech, to look at how virtual reality could change the standard PDF experience. She worked with Chang and Adobe senior scientists Byungmoon Kim and Antoine Amanieux.
“The biggest question was what would it be like to go in there to read a PDF,” Warrell said. “I thought it would be kind of boring to go into a VR headset just to read. I said, ‘Why don’t we flip the concept around?’ ”
That meant coming up with a way to experience the subject matter covered by the PDF in an interactive form, instead of just reading text.
Adobe, which makes its money with software like Photoshop and cloud business-marketing services, created the PDF in the early 1990s. It has since become a standard document format, although the company acknowledges it’s also been derided, as former CEO Bruce Chizen once said, “as the roach motel of data formats — you could get data in, but you couldn’t get it out.”
But a virtual reality PDF can unlock layers of information, Chang said.
The spy station experience, for example, provides a better sense of how big the facility was than simple text or photos could convey, Chang said. “And you weren’t forced to read it in any particular order. You were reading the annotations as you discovered them, and in that sense every experience is unique to the way that person is exploring the environment.”
He believes that one day, people can capture family birthday parties in photos and text and share them as virtual PDFs. “Instead of having just photos, you have a snapshot of the whole moment that you can drop a person into,” he said. “And if you have annotations, your relatives could start looking around and say, ‘Oh, that’s Uncle Fred,’ or ‘That’s the dog, Rex.’ ”
And students might use the PDFs instead of textbooks.
Warrell, who has returned to school with plans to graduate this year, believes it could be used in a variety of ways, such as for tourists to research a potential destination.
“We’ll have to figure out what’s the best way for users to experience that,” she said. “We know that VR is the next big thing.”
Adobe, however, isn’t ready to release the new format and hasn’t shown it to anyone else outside the company. Chang said the company has yet to figure out potential commercial uses for the technology and is still working on many details.
Indeed, the virtual reality industry itself is in its early stages and is still trying to figure out how to get average consumers to buy the expensive headsets.
Gartner research analyst Brian Blau, a longtime VR industry observer, was somewhat skeptical.
“PDF documents are known for being static, not interactive, so adding a feature to support 360-degree photos is a nice addition and one that can tie into the burgeoning content type,” Blau said in an email. “I don’t see this as any big leap, though, but one that helps keep PDF more current than not.”
Adobe Research principal scientist Walter Chang gives a demonstration of the company’s virtual reality version of a PDF at its offices in San Francisco.
Chang displays a 2-dimensional version of the program on a laptop.
Scientist Walter Chang said people can explore the PDFs, checking out annotations and other information in whatever order they choose.