Posts Tagged ‘virtual reality’

Thoughts On Augmented Reality

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I’ve posted in these pages – and the previous incarnation of this blog – about the unique and rapidly evolving blend of our technical senses and our immediate surroundings, which we quaintly refer to as “the real world”. Awareness of this extension of our senses has grown enough to give it a catchy name: Augmented Reality. Like all such phrases it tries to explain the whole thing while managing only to scratch the surface and still come off sounding like something a plumber does for $100 an hour while showing off the crack of his ass.

“Okay, Robbo, what is Augmented Reality and why should I give a shit?”

I’m so glad you asked.

This has become a longer blog post than post than most, with a pant load of embedded videos (and juicy links that you must follow or I’ll come to your home late at night and read them out loud to you) because there’s a lot of information and examples connected with the ideas behind AR. What I present here is by no means definitive. How could it be? All of this seems to be evolving faster than I can type. What I posit here merely gives a sketch of what I see happening and some consequences for us to consider.

Here we go.

Augmented Reality – or “AR” as it is also known (and I fucking hate the over use of acronyms in this dirt stupid KFC, McD, ROTFLMAO world of ours) – is the use of technology to enhance our senses and provide a richer experience of the world around us.

A simple cartoon example would be Steve Austin’s bionic eye in The Six Million Dollar Man that could zoom in with really cool “boo-boo-boo-boo-boo!” sounds. While we’re on the verge of having implanted tech just like Steve Austin the reality is more complex, not only in what can (and will) be implemented but also how these ubiquitously enhanced senses of ours will change how we live and behave in this world and consequently change what it means to be human.

One of the most vocal enthusiasts for augmented reality at the moment is Bruce Sterling who has been devoting the bulk of his recent blog postings to the subject and he can always be counted on to point out the deliciousness of fundamental transformative power coming soon to an eyeball, ear, tongue and brain really near you.

Here’s a keynote address Sterling gave a week ago at the Layar Launch Event in Amsterdam:

Thanks, Bruce, now let’s have a practical demonstration of what this funky augmented reality shit is all about.

I’ve posted Pattie Maes TED Talk here before but it’s worth putting up again because it pertains directly to what I am nattering on about. Maes is speaking of research she and her team at MIT have been doing on a project called Sixth Sense

Of course, it’s the abilities displayed in Pattie Maes talk that matter more than the cludgey gear slung around the neck of her colleague.

A lot of people see that video and immediately say: “Yeah, but who wants to go walking around looking like a dork with a big piece of shit hanging off them?” – oh, there are a few but the people who make that comment are completely missing the point.

It’s the context.

It’s the inherent idea that counts. The tech will inevitably, inexorably. become smaller and more wearable. How wearable? Remember Steve Austin and his “boo-boo-boo-boo-boo!” eyeball?

Until we get the Steve Austin Special – competitively priced well below the $6 million price break – we’ll just have to make do with our arms length windows on the world.

That would be our phones.

iPhones and all those who follow in its wake are the AR device du jour. The best known of the lot is NearestTube, which uses the GPS and compass capabilities of the iPhone to help you find the best route on the subway. But, to paraphrase the opening narration of the Six Million Dollar Man: “We have the technology, let’s abuse it.”

Issues of data-privacy aside (see Lawyers below) that’s some cool shit.

It seems these days everyone and their dog are trying to make the next best iPhone app but that’s a far cry from wearable, insertable, implantable AR tech, right?

Well – maybe.

Don’t go thinking that it’s only the big huge well funded mega tech companies and university labs that are coming up with all this cool shit. Another aspect of what makes this tech/sense evolution so cool is how it is burbling and fermenting in the myriad garage labs around the planet. Folks who, on their own time (a la the protagonists of the movie Primer), innovate in their home made laboratories – like part-time Dr. Frankensteins – crafting really wild ideas with readily accessible tech.

Some of this home-brew lab work is focused on genetics and that scares the hell out of me but since this is a happy happy joy joy blog post and we’ll save the “Oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die.” blog post for another day.

Johnny Lee gave a great demo at TED where he showed what could be done by cheaply hacking the Wii remotes to craft all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

And when you add the Wii hacks to a 3D display and ultrasonic displacement you get a proto-type for a touchable hologram.

I know what you’re thinking and yes, porn in the future will be awesome.

Touching virtual bewbs is but one part of the equation. The true innovators – the ones who will be crafting the truly disrupting uses of AR – will be the folks working alone, in their basement or garage, unleashing what at first appears to be a simple game-like app built from readily available gear and quickly becomes adopted as a new and necessary way of seeing and interacting with the world around us.

Count on it.

Now let’s take this AR stuff a little further, shall we?

Look at the Microsoft Photosynth project.

Amassing the vast and continually growing library of images from around the world, collating them together and intuitively crafting a 3D representation of real world locales. Neat! What’s that got to do with AR?

Show up anywhere and layer on top images from every angle and across a span of time. Mix in a tad of that facial recognition shit and you have a playlist of who’s walked those streets you now tread upon or have gazed out the windows above you. The time of the place will hover over it just as surely as the light which meets your eyes as you gaze upon the actual real world structures. Time – history – formed not just from the perspective of Napolean’s winners but from the experience of any participant who happened to capture a sliver of their time in place, will hang like neglected Christmas lights from every location on the planet.

Make the media layers of AR richer and deeper and the passing of time itself will be reduced in meaning.

And then – there’s virtual worlds.

Oh shit.

I’ve blabbered on about this before. Look at the stuff I just showed you. Now take a more detailed 3D representation of Google Earth. Add the ability to travel that world with an avatar. Add the ability to connect the various virtual worlds together – and, yes, folks are actively working toward making this happen. Stir in any of your favourite virtual worlds. Mash ‘em up. Voila.

You can appear as an avatar in a virtual reality simulacrum of the world and transport yourself to a cafe on the other side of the world – a representation of a real cafe – and sit across from a friend who is actually there. They (and anyone else fitted with the tech) will see you sitting, perhaps ghost-like, in your chair at the table. What used to be called “spirit photography” would now be seen as the next wave of social media.

Personally, I just love the idea of the eventual merging of virtual worlds when World Of Warcraft guilds will storm the barricades of Second Life and decimate the entire place without ever once having to resort to any flying penises.

But that’s just me.

Our virtual worlds will augment our real worlds. The layers of virtual reality that can be woven with our perceived reality is stunning. The world is gonna become a fucking Hieronymus Bosch painting of hallucinations. It used to be just crazy people walked down the street, talking to themselves, seeing visions and walking into traffic. Now everyone’s gonna be doing it. What will the crazy folks do to distinguish themselves?

Speakin’ of crazy folks – let’s get into the shit.

Lawyers and marketers.

Oh yeah.

Let’s kick the marketers in the nuts first.

Folks in marketing say they are providing a service to both producers and consumers in this world by making available the information necessary for informed choices. Bullshit. They help sell crap. They help sell policy. Marketers are scum. I’m with Bill Hicks on this one:

The obtusely sociopathic marketing monkeys, the progeny of Bunyan’s Vanity Fair, will forever seek ways to insert themselves and their message into the line-of-sight of your experience of this world. Like Chaplin in his first film, Kid Auto Races In Venice, or the scene stealing squirrel – but without the charm and humour – they will find and exploit any and every opportunity to get your attention. Mix that up with AR.

Walk down the street on a sunny day, observing the world through your AR filters, and you will see billboards change to suit your targeted demographic; store signs will be augmented to get your attention; directions to sponsored events will compete for display space – it will all get eyeball bleedingly irritating in a very very short time. Some locations will willingly make use of the tech to showcase their wares. Other locations will look forward to making a buck renting the AR space of their street or building to a series of targeted rotating ads.

It’ll be like Google AdSense – except it’s every-fucking-where.

Shoot me now.

Some locations won’t want to have these ads over-layed on the real world views of their buildings. Will they be able to opt out? If the net service you subscribe to sells any blank space available for advertising the actual owners of the space wouldn’t have any control of what gets presented in your AR view of the world. This is similar to what’s already going on with Rogers and other service providers who think they have a right to inflict themselves upon your transport through the net, replacing ads, redirecting traffic and generally acting like ignorant, arrogant, greedy douchebags.

You may not be able to escape the barrage of unwanted AR messages that will litter your world view like the road side billboards of yore.

Or would you?

Bring in the lawyers.

I’m usually with Billy The Shakes when it comes to lawyers. They’re fun to kick around – until you need one. But, for the most part, they’re about as beneficial to the growth of humanity as marketers (see Bill Hicks above).

Just as Stanislaw Lem loved to probe the ethics and legal ramifications of robots in our society, we would be well advised to get a preview of how AR will affect our jurisprudence of the senses as touched by AR.

It was a big deal back in the 1970′s when the concept of “air rights” came into being – the right to sell and trade in the real estate that hovered over the actual surface of owned land. Like the debt trades that have recently beggared America, the rights to open space could be bought, sold, and traded as needed. So too the rights to the AR space could conceivably become a viable economic model – controlling what can (and cannot) be augmented over a view of a physical locale. Issues of free speech will erupt – escpecially when vociferously pursued by a business agenda – when any controls are sought to reduce, replace or eliminate any undesired AR presence.

The DMCA, no doubt, will also be brought into play (just as abused as it is today) to prevent the unauthorized use of content, trademarks or logos – or to restrain any unfavourable AR commentary placed up a business. Visible and prominent comments – similar to what might be found on a blog but now hovering in the air in front of any given establishment – thumbs up or thumbs down, restaurant reviews or revealing corporate profiles that do not place a company in the best light could be posted and subsequently suppressed.

Is it free speech or is it graffiti? Where does your right to know stop and where does their right to inflict begin? Could instrusive AR marketing be considered spam? Is the pollution and overt control of your senses a viable claim for legal action? Will large and powerful interests be able to hold sway over how you see the world you would like to choose to see through the technology you choose to apply to yourself?

Yes, indeed, kill the lawyers before they impoverish us all – but not before we get laws passed in our favour.

It all sounds silly because it all seems so much of a cartoon right now, doesn’t it? But we must consider these implications of where our extended senses are leading us. We must anticipate the best and the worst uses to which humanity will employ these innovations.

The current battles being waged over who owns and controls the internet are, for the most part, narrowly focused on the desire of a few large corporations to maintain an old business model by making the internet become the new television versus the desire of human beings to express themselves and connect with each other on a truly global scale.

It would be good to remember the significant part of the AR acronym is the letter R.


The internet isn’t television. Despite the proliferation of trivial distractions that threaten, as Neil Postman warned, to amuse ourselves to death, the true value, the true nature, the true destiny (if you will) of the internet is to make our real world more real to us. Once the technology becomes ubiquitous and becomes not something that sits outside of us but is an undeniable extension of who we are and how we experience this world then, and only then, will the really big ass disruption occur.

If you are lucky enough to be free to use this technology to transcend the boundaries of time and space and personal knowledge you will quickly and easily discover what it means to be human.

All other distractions will fade away.

I guarantee it.

Of course, I could be completely wrong and maybe we’ll just end up like a bunch of embryonic meat puppet slaves to the devouring robotic overlords of the Matrix.

Still – it would be more interesting than the drab and petty shit being inflicted upon us now.

I’ll leave the last word for Bruce Sterling in a talk he gave over a year ago about the ubiquitous nature of our technologies and where they are plausibly leading us. A little behind the times now, even after only a year of innovative development, but still a good primer for what I’ve been nattering on about.

Keep your eyes open folks – and look at what you choose to.


P. S. When I said: “Speaking of crazy – “ I did not mean to equate lawyers and marketers with people suffering from or coping with mental illness. That would be a wholly inaccurate and unfair depiction of anyone with a mental illness. My apologies.

P. P. S. Chris Grayson of GigantiCo left a comment on this article – you should check out his blog – he covers this territory in more detail and with greater aplomb than I. Thanks, Chris!