Vir­tual re­al­ity:

Adobe project lets you ‘walk’ into pho­tos

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Benny Evan­ge­lista

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.”

Pho­tos by Amy Os­borne / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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.

Amy Os­borne / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Sci­en­tist Wal­ter Chang said peo­ple can ex­plore the PDFs, check­ing out an­no­ta­tions and other in­for­ma­tion in what­ever or­der they choose.

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