Augmented Reality

(This is an essay I submitted some time ago for my college’s freshmen essay contest. In review, the end is more than a bit too alarmist; still I hope it is worth reading.)

Augmented Reality. The dangers of technology-enabled personalisation in the digital age.

THE CAR OF THE FUTURE

Alan N. Shapiro wants to create the car of the future. A computer scientist by profession and author of a theoretical work on sci-fi series Star Trek, Shapiro has a plan that would revolutionize the world of motorized vehicles. The automobiles of today, he explained when I met him at Berlin’s media art festival Transmediale (motto: “Futurity Now!”), are highly ineffective. Too wide when you are looking for a parking space in the city centre, not flat enough when you are driving on the high way. Shapiro wants to change that.

Nick Pugh has given Shapiro’s dreams a shape. His sketches show a car that bends and folds itself, adapting length, width, height to its environment. Shapiro, an American living in Germany, has been working with Volkswagen on the “car of the future”. If it would go into construction, it would be a masterpiece of engineering. Yet the computer scientist, who starred at a sub-conference called “Phuturama” alongside a futurist, a sci-fi writer and a video-game programmer, among others, has an idea which might be even harder to implement.

The inefficiency of today’s cars cannot be blamed solely on their engineers. Drivers, too, have a responsibility – but they often drive just for fun. A wasteful, dangerous form of entertainment. If everybody had a truly realistic car simulator in the parlour, they would only take their cars out of the garage if they really needed to get from a to b, the idea goes. And still it was not revolutionary enough for one member of the audience. Why not combine the two?, he asked. Why not have an augmented reality-enhanced car, one that lets its driver chose a theme for the environment it is crossing – transforming the morning commute into a tour through a medieval town or ancient Greece?

That was when I first started to worry about augmented reality. How will we as a society react to a technology which bears the possibility to give us greater power to shape our experience of the world than ever before? Will we master this tool, or will the technology master us who cannot resist to implement what is technically feasible? And how will the transformation in our perception of the world change our society?

INFORMATION-ENRICHED REALITY

If you ask experts in the field, augmented reality is a revolutionary technology. Austrian web magazine “futurezone” calls it a “new kind of seeing”. What is it that makes technologists, entrepreneurs and artists so excited?

Simply put, a layer of digital information is added upon reality to “augment” it. This information can be made visible using devices such as smart phones. Take a simple, yet well-known example for augmented reality technologies: When you watch football on TV, free kick distances or offside situations will be visualized on screen. Yet modern “AR” applications are much more advanced than that.

Layar, a Dutch company, is one of the front-runners in augmented reality technologies. It develops the “Reality Browser”, a software which it says “shows what is around you by displaying real time digital information on top of the real world as seen through the camera of your mobile phone.” Users can choose among various “layers” – applications with information on historical buildings or chef de cuisine Jamie Oliver’s favourite restaurants. The browser uses camera, compass and GPS data to identify a location and then displays venues nearby.

One of these layers, offered by two German developers, lets users see a 3D animation of the Berlin Wall when they visit the original sites. Another application for the iPhone, from the Museum of London, does not only provide information on tourist features. It also includes 400 years of historic images which can by laid over today’s city streets. Standing on the bank of the Thames, looking at London Bridge, visitors can see a painting by Baroque artist Abraham Hondius engrafted in the scene. When walking through the city centre, photos from the 1920’s might show them what London looked like a century ago.

Today, all this still happens only on tiny mobile phone displays. But since early augmented reality technologies, developers have dreamt of integrating it even closer into people’s lives. Maybe the first digital AR project at all were spectacles developed in 1968 by MIT scientist Ivan Sutherland which could project simple abstract shapes into users’ visual fields. Back then, a complicated apparatus was needed for this. But today, half a century later, the dream of slim, easy-to-wear augmented reality glasses could soon become true.

EVERYTHING IS CANVAS

“In an augmented reality rich world everything is a potential canvas”, says Jan Chipchase, an ethnographer known for his work as a former chief usability researcher with Nokia. This is especially true for big, flat surfaces – such as billboards. Google, which has already rolled out a “visual search” application called “Goggles” for looking up photographed text and images (including, technically, faces, a feature not yet rolled out due to privacy concerns), is reportedly thinking about selling advertising space on billboards it does not even own – using augmented reality.

Julian Oliver, a British artist, has a different take on advertising. These proprietary spaces are exclusively owned by companies, while passers-by are forced to look at them, he complains. Thus, his project “Artvertiser” uses AR technology to replace advertising with art – quite literally a creative way of reclaiming public space.

Yet in the end, a third solution might prevail. Millions already use a Firefox plug-in called “AdBlock Plus” to exonerate their Internet experience of distracting advertising. A similar application for augmented realities could be the first choice of many who would like to get rid of unwanted bills and placards.

IGNORANCE IS BLISS?

A photograph by British artist David Shrigley shows a sign placed in front of Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium, reading “ignore this building”. A desperate effort in view of the Armadillo-shaped concert hall? In an augmented reality world, we might well carry a remote control with an “ignore” button to remove objectionable sights from our view: Clyde Auditorium becomes a freshly-mowed, computer-generated lawn. A greasy beggar is converted into a flower pot. All with just one click.

As our ability to model the world as we see it according to our preferences continues to grow at a rapid pace, the unexpected faces extinction. Last.fm provides you with music similar to what you have heard before, Facebook shows you updates depending on which ones you have read in the past, and Amazon suggests books to you based on your previous purchases. Google is working on a technology called “predictive search”: It aims to anticipate users’ interests, prospectively suggesting search terms which might be interesting to them – by analysing their anterior behaviour.

In a dystopian augmented reality world, we would be able to hide anything unfamiliar or unwanted from our view, creating for ourselves a highly personalized bubble in which we only hear what we want to hear, see what we want to see, and meet who we want to meet. At some point, we might even be able to block objectionable smells.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that augmented reality is our doom. Nor is Google’s predictive search. Technology does not determine our future. But the emergence of digital tools, and especially of communication networks such as the Internet, has opened up an unprecedented opportunity for personalization. The world it enables is still to be shaped.

A HISTORICAL CHANGE

In the 18th century, new machines started to vastly increase the amount of goods a single worker could produce. The following Industrial Revolution did not only boost productivity. It also transformed society, giving birth to the antagonistic ideologies of capitalism and communism, which would dominate the political discourse from there on. Both systems were styled to fit the prevailing mode of mass production, which superseded former ways of manufacturing.

The industrial model prefers one-to-many communication, where one sender tries to spread its message to an audience as big as possible. Newspapers, which were previously small, local enterprises limited by printing press capacity and logistical means of circulation, developed into large, nation-wide corporations. Television, which eventually became the dominant medium of the industrial age, uses expensive transmitters and cheap receivers to broadcast its message to the masses.

During the last ten or twenty years, this paradigm has undergone a fundamental change. The emergence of the Internet has decreased the price of publishing to nearly zero, for the first time in human history making wide-spread many-to-many communication feasible. Digital technologies allow for an increasingly fine-tuned individual appropriation of information goods.

A CRITICAL MASS?

When mass was the prevailing paradigm, any alternative (i.e. non-mainstream) ideology was to fear homogenization as the biggest evil. The individual seemed constantly under threat by economic and political powers. In the “networked information economy” – a term coined by Harvard economist Yochai Benkler – this situation is turned upside down – personalization becomes the norm. Could this put our society at risk?

Democracy is fundamentally based on the idea that there is one people, the demos. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his work “Du Contract Social”, writes about the “volonté générale”, or general will, as the “true interest” of democracy. It is remarkably opposed to the “volonté du tous”, which is made up of the sum of particular interests. In a possible technology-enabled world of near-perfect personalization, would we still be able to have a common interest?

Homophily, as Ethan Zuckerman describes it, is “the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together”. Closed circles share their preferred sources of information at the expense of other, often disagreeing voices. A person within such a circle only gets to know perspectives of people she approves of, living in what Harvard legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls a “media cocoon”, an isolated sphere.

Insulated from differing views, ignorant of the living circumstances of others, we would be cut off of the sorts of information we need to make informed decisions as citizens. No longer members of a greater community, but caught in a highly personalized bubble, the common interest would fall out of sight. Under these circumstances, the ground our society is based on would be sedated.

A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

Technology does not determine our fate, but it enables possible paths for the future. Augmented reality is not going to harm us, but our use of this tool possibly will, if we make the wrong decisions.

Just as well, the digital revolution opens up a window of opportunity to shape our world to be a more free and more equal place. New communication tools have torn down century old barriers and are rapidly changing the face of our media world, while the structure of the Internet could stand as a model for future politics.

Meanwhile, old forms of organizing are experiencing a revival. The commons, which seemed close to their death, are on the rise in the digital spheres, where lossless copying makes sharing easier than ever before. They live of a concerned community that cares for their maintenance, and communication among all those participating in the commons is the key to their sustainment.

Layar advertises its “Reality Browser” with the slogan “Discover your city again”. Yet we might do well to use technology to discover our neighbour’s world instead, taking a step towards understanding the fundamentals of a shared environment on which to build a more free and equal society.

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