Reality is not enough

Will we demolish the distinction between our physical and virtual lives?
November 14, 2012

Left, Theodolite shows users geographical data about their location, top, an augmented reality toy by Visionaries 777, currently a prototype, and, above, the Acrossair app highlights the nearest tube stations

During New York Fashion Week this autumn, Google co-founder Sergey Brin formed an unlikely partnership with clothing designer Diane von Furstenberg to promote an accessory with a difference: Google Glass, a prototype for the company’s first wearable computer. At the von Furstenberg show, lithe models strutted down the runway wearing the futuristic Glass, which resembles a sleek visor and includes a tiny display screen over the right eye. This allows the wearer to take pictures and videos, send emails, and browse the internet using voice-activated commands. Google is invested in the idea that the smartphone will eventually give way to the wearable computer, just as the basic mobile phones of the 1980s and 1990s led to today’s smartphones.

Although it is several years away from making Glass available to the public, the project indicates Google’s enthusiasm for an idea that has been quietly growing in the technology community for several years: augmented reality. Broadly speaking, augmented reality describes the myriad ways in which digital data—in the form of video, sound, graphics or text—can be layered over real-world settings using screen-based devices to make daily life more efficient and exciting.

If you own a smartphone you have already taken a small step into the world of augmented reality. If you get lost, the phone’s map and internal Global Positioning System (GPS) can offer a real-time route home, tracking your movements along the way. Smartphones can also provide information about our surroundings by retrieving data based on images taken with the camera; iPhone users can download the Wikitude app, for example, which allows them to point their phone at a physical object to retrieve digital information about it. Direct it towards a restaurant and Wikitude will summon recent reviews; aim it at a mountain range and it will display the name and elevation of the peak you are admiring. Similarly, online shoppers can use software such as Virtual Interactive Podium and Fits.Me to create virtual fitting rooms in their homes. Users can “try on” simulations of clothing from online retailers through motion-sensitive video game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect.

As for wearable computers, it isn’t far-fetched to assume that we will eventually accept the idea into our everyday lives. Although most of us don’t yet wear our smartphones, we are usually within a few feet of them and have come to rely on their extrasensory capacities to make life easier. Our phones ensure that our digital and physical worlds are inextricably tied: digital information helps us live in the physical world and we incorporate our physical experiences into our digital lives by uploading images and text to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Promoters of augmented reality technology want to make these interventions more sophisticated, seamless, ubiquitous, and profitable.

Until now, augmented reality has been most popular in the world of video games. Millions of people worldwide have participated in Geocaching games, outdoor treasure hunts where players register online, obtain coordinates from their host website, and then use a GPS-enabled mobile phone to locate caches hidden in the “real world” by other players in the area. After finding the cache and returning it to its hiding place you are encouraged to make the physical experience digital by posting photos and comments about your treasure hunt on the Geocaching website.

A US game developer, Will Wright, who pioneered simulation video games—one of his earliest and most popular games, SimCity, allows players to create virtual towns by making decisions about building roads, raising taxes, and the like—is now hoping to bring out a new game, HiveMind, which draws on the principles of augmented reality. Although the project is currently on hold, Wright has said he plans to use data mining—the analysis of large quantities of data to identify patterns—and GPS software to personalise and track individual players. The game will incorporate aspects of the player’s real life into the virtual world of HiveMind.

“It is about how we make reality more interesting to you,” Wright recently told the technology website VentureBeat. “We learn about you and your routines and incorporate that into a form of game play... The user becomes the game.”

Evident in all this software is a major shift in our understanding of the virtual and the real. Speaking at a humanities festival in Chicago, Illinois, last year, science fiction author William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace,” said, “Look at the Victorians. For some reason they had a need to deny that sex existed. When we’re the Victorians, I think that people will say, ‘For some reason they had a need to distinguish between what they thought of as the real and the virtual.’” Proponents of augmented reality envision a future where the virtual and the real are so enmeshed and the technology we use to negotiate these realms so unnoticeable that we no longer talk about being “online” or “offline.” As Sergey Brin recently told the Wall Street Journal in an interview about Google Glass, “The notion of seamlessly having access to your digital world without disrupting the real world is very important.” For many technologists it is this very dualism—the digital versus the real—that augmented reality seeks to abolish.

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We have always used technology to augment reality. The first pair of eyeglasses augmented reality for their wearer, to great effect. In the 18th century, devotees of pastoral landscapes carried around the Claude Glass, named after the painter Claude Lorrain. The tinted piece of glass, according to historian Leo Marx, transformed the landscape viewed through it “into a provisional work of art, framed and suffused by a golden tone like that of the master’s paintings.” Today’s smartphone users, through applications such as Instagram, apply sepia tones to their photographs to achieve a faux-vintage appearance—an urge to manufacture nostalgic beauty not unlike the one that motivated wielders of the Claude Glass centuries earlier.

Thus far our tweaking of reality is viewed as harmless improvement; our augmentations merely a diversion from the grittier or inconvenient aspects of existence. Everyday human experience is often inefficient, frustrating, and dull. Why not use technology to enhance it, make it more seamless and convenient—even fun? In the near future, for example, if you are wearing a Google Glass-style device and you pass your favourite coffee shop, a coupon might appear on your display screen, along with a recent tweet from a friend about the pumpkin soy latte she enjoyed there earlier in the day. When a computer can “see” what you see it can intervene to offer you things you might not have realised you needed or wanted; the designers of computer algorithms can learn more about your tastes and habits and so, over time, refine their offerings in a kind of manufactured serendipity feedback loop.

Yet a world of augmented reality raises both practical and philosophical challenges. There is the mundane but real challenge of information overload. Augmenting reality means adding even more information to a daily experience already pinging, buzzing and humming with data. Even without augmented reality glasses, pedestrians and drivers in New York City have become so distracted by their technological devices that city officials, borrowing an idea from London, have painted the word “LOOK” on the pedestrian crossings of one hundred of the city’s most dangerous intersections. Adding to the data stream might increase stress and distraction for a great many people; British comedian Tom Scott recently parodied our likely future in a short video that ostensibly shows a Google Glass wearer becoming so confused by the bombardment of ads on his tiny screen that he walks straight into a pole.

This technology raises new possibilities for real-time markets as advertisers vie for our attention on a moment-by-moment basis. Google makes its revenue from advertisements, after all, and Google Glass would be an extraordinarily efficient way of delivering them straight to the consumer. Our daily behaviour already generates a vast amount of data: our spending habits, medical conditions, the toll roads we drive on, our use of public transport, the movies, books, and music we have downloaded. Because augmented reality technology is designed by others—usually private businesses—to gather information about us through our use of it, the need for greater transparency about the kinds of data collected and how that data is used will only increase.

Augmented reality devices could feasibly record every single thing you do and see, raising obvious privacy concerns—and making the current reach of CCTV cameras appear quaint by comparison. Who would be comfortable using a public restroom full of people wearing Google Glass visors? How would our assumptions about behaviour in public places and our trust of others change in a world where everything you say or do can be recorded and uploaded to the internet by your fellow citizens? If our use of smartphones in public is any guide—the constant distractions, the private conversations we now hear all around us, the filming and photographing of practically anything—we will have numerous problems to solve in years to come.

Paradoxically, augmented reality technology also has the potential to block things that people don’t want to see—an ugly building, for example, or a homeless person on the street. That could undermine social cohesion. If we each live in our own augmented reality, connected to our existing network of friends and family, how will our attitude about engaging with strangers in public spaces change? Some theorists have suggested that in the future, the wearable computer will act literally as a “sixth sense,” using sensors and computational power to divine, in real time, our needs and desires. Creating an algorithm that predicts a perfect shopping experience is one thing, but crafting one that encourages human empathy is quite another.

A world that embraces augmented reality is one in which we place a great deal of trust in the designers of our technology and in the ethos of the engineers that fuel them. Those engineers are excellent at solving practical challenges and making life more efficient and convenient, but they are not necessarily the best ethical guides; they create extraordinary means for us to do many things, but they are not in the business of crafting meaningful ends. In the pursuit of the perfect algorithm, we risk forgetting that there are other, ineffable things not likely to benefit from the augmenting eye of the engineer—a stranger’s questioning glance, a quiet moment in the middle of the teeming city, a snippet of overheard conversation on the bus. These things are impossible to quantify because their value is entirely unique for each of us. Incapable of standardisation or replication, they are nevertheless the human moments that comprise our daily experience, and not all of them need augmentation to be appreciated.

We are still some years away from the thoroughly augmented world envisioned by technology entrepreneurs and theorists. The hyperbole of its creators notwithstanding, you are unlikely to see someone wearing Google Glass on a street corner any time soon. This is why it is an opportune time to think about how we might want to live with such technology once it gains mass acceptance. The screens we look at now might well become the glass we look through constantly in the future. Whether or not what we see on the other side is distorted, darkened, clear, or cracked, depends in part on decisions we make today. As we move towards an era of augmented reality, we ought to start asking ourselves what technology is for, what we want it to do for us, and how we want to live with it in the future.