From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Augmented Reality: Now You Can See Like a Cyborg

Augmented Reality (AR) is one of those science fiction technologies that is on the verge of becoming the hot new trend in reality. What is Augmented Reality? Imagine how the world looks to the Terminator or a robot — whatever object or person they look at gets highlighted and little info windows pop up about them. And environmental information, instructions, compass, guidance markers to their next destination, they all appear in the field of vision like a heads-up display in a video game.

Well, now you can see the real world that way too, and without pesky cybernetic implants. There are apps for smartphones and forthcoming visor-like devices that allow you to see a virtual world overlaid on reality.

But will Augmented Reality be a good thing or bad?

There are plenty of good things about AR, which I will get to. But first, here are some of my own concerns that I hope will be addressed as this new technology develops.

The Bad Stuff

1. It keeps telling me Keira Knightley is Natalie Portman.

First impressions count, and if people’s first impression is whatever the AR tells them to think about me, that might not be good if it the AR is wrong due to bad facial recognition or faulty data, or has been hacked (or, yes, if it is aware of that one incident in 1993 with the rickshaw, the chocolate sauce, the trapeze artist and the monkey idol – but don’t we all have at least one of those incidents in our past?).

I can imagine getting dirty looks and rude reactions from everyone I meet because their AR visors confuse me with someone else and flash “WARNING: DANGEROUS DORKFACE” above my head, when really I’m a very nice dorkface. Or getting the full cavity search at the airport because of something my virtual profile says.

Or even if the software correctly recognizes me, what if it projects my “profile”, including political and religious views, above my head. People may choose to avoid or dismiss me based on a label and further collect into likeminded self-confirming groups rather than engaging with perfectly decent and fun me just because I happen to have different views than they hold. This might also generally contribute to the political, racial, religious and class splintering of our society.

AR Business Card from James Alliban on Vimeo.

2. Fandom Gets Out of Control.
Imagine a hard-core Trekkie with AR glasses that renders the world around him to look like a Star Trek set. The sky is red. Everyone looks like Starfleet officers or Star Trek aliens. When someone speaks, he can have it translated into Klingon. Now imagine me with my far superior Firefly filter on trying to interact with that person and suss out a normal conversation. Not shiny. Not shiny at all.

3. The world will become what the machine tells the person it is.
And who controls the machines? That’s right, Skynet. Well, okay, in the ideal scenario the augmented reality space will be peer-created and peer-policed like reviews on teh interwebs are today, but hopefully with fewer juvenile YOU IZ A F@##0T! comments. Still, the perceptions of the general public are already so shaped and managed by the (increasingly consolidated) commercial media, by marketing firms and focus-grouped ads and entertainment. So what happens when everything you see becomes a billboard, with companies and other folks telling you what to think about it? Sure, you’d like to think that people would apply a bit of independent thought and consideration. But if that were true, how do you explain Miley Cyrus?

4. Reducing the Need to Explore and to Imagine.
When my true love and I were driving along the coast one year, we took a wrong turn. We ended up in a little “town” called Fossil Creek that was actually just a few houses all owned by the same family. The matriarch was an elderly lady who made art out of dryer lint – and it was pretty amazing art. If we had been following GPS guidance and not gotten lost, we would never have taken that lovely side trip, met that lady and had that experience.

Perhaps having infobubbles pop up over things that make me aware of something I would have otherwise missed will compensate for this kind of spontaneous and unplanned exploration. But then again, I get a ton of links to interesting stuff on the web, and after a while you just have to ignore it all. Too much information is as bad as too little, and when you gain the ability to filter reality the way you filter the web to only show you what you already want to see, I fear it will limit even further the wonderful world of random adventure and accidental encounters.

I also worry that people will stop seeing the world, and only see the overlaid info about the world. They will not stop to smell the roses, or appreciate the gothic architecture of the house behind it, because they will instead be focused on the virtual graffiti that makes the house look like a giant breast with a dancing dolphin tattoo. It is bad enough that people hardly look up from texting and Tweeting on their phones as it is.

5. Completely Filtered Reality.
It would be nice to think AR might undo some of the fine work of bad home schooling, the Texas Board of Education, and other efforts to filter and spin reality to shelter the young from annoying facts. But I fear it might actually do the opposite. AR will likely be touted by some as the greatest threat to our youth since Rock and Roll and Dungeons & Dragons combined!

And in response, there will be AR Filters created. Just as Conservapedia [http://www.conservapedia.com/Evolution] was created to give an even more inaccurate view of the truth than Wikipedia already provides, and web nanny programs block unwanted sites, so too there will no doubt be a ton of applications that will allow parents to filter and “correct” the information that their children are being fed via the AR devices. So not only will the children be sheltered from the truth at home, but every waking moment that they are looking through AR specs, their perception of reality will be shaped and constrained by the fears and beliefs of their parents, further limiting their opportunity and freedom to form their own beliefs and develop their own understanding and knowledge of reality.

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6. You Will Be at a Disadvantage if you Don’t Use It.
Without AR, you will simply not be seeing the world in the same way as those who do use AR. You will not have ready access to the same information, the same jokes, the same reality as those around you. And as such, AR may in some ways further widen existing class gaps or provide additional challenges for those who cannot afford good AR systems, or who cannot use them due to physical disabilities or other reasons.

The Good Stuff
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying AR will destroy the world as we know it. We’re doing that just fine without AR. In fact, AR offers a lot of great potential to make our lives better and actually help save the world.

1. An increased ability to live by a set of principles or goals.
Don’t like what Company X did? One day you will easily be able to boycott every product produced or sold by them and their subsidiaries, without having to put any effort into researching what those products are — when you look at a shelf in the store, AR will just tell you which products to avoid. You can reduce your carbon footprint or eat healthier in a similar manner. You can become a smarter consumer in general.

2. Further Evolution of Books.
AR offers even more ways in which print media and publishing may be transformed in the digital age, by making stories come to life in new ways.

3. Greater Ties and Participation in your Community.
You can be made aware of community events as you drive by their future locations, take advantage of more sales in local businesses, be made aware of community meetings or pending bills or measures that will impact local parks, schools, and businesses, etcetera, because that info will be displayed or downloaded when you look at the buildings, or perhaps a Community Info billboard.

4. Ironically, More Personal Interaction.
AR might also get people outside and active more, and interacting with real live people more, by merging aspects of video games, social media and entertainment now enjoyed in the home with live personal interactions and events in parks, community buildings, and public spaces in general.

5. Enhancing Skills and Replacing Cryptic Instruction Books
AR can also greatly aid skilled workers and take Do it Yourself to a whole new level by having step by step instructions and guides overlaid on a task or job you are performing, whether you are a surgeon, or a construction worker, or just your average Joe or Jane trying to change the fuel cell on your car.

In other words, the potential uses are varied, with real impacts to our lives and our world, and the extent and nature of those uses have only begun to be imagined as the infant technology takes its first steps.

Soon, AR will be as common as Tweetbooking on your iDroid device. So be prepared, and help to make AR a space you want to live in.

Until then, however, I shall just continue to use AR to identify and outline my enemy targets so that I can more easily dispatch them using my cybernetic reflexes, human.

Bonus Prize: If you have a webcam, you can go to here to print out a fun demonstration of AR technology related to GE’s smart power grid.

Randy Henderson stays crunchy in milk. He is a speculative fiction writer, a Clarion West graduate, a relapsed sarcasm addict, a milkshake connoisseur, and master of a robot meerkat army. Most importantly he has won the prestigious “Fantasy Friday Blog for a Beer” award five times (to date). For his further genre-related musings, go to his blog or find him on facebook.