Virtual reality (VR) is a good idea for escapist fantasies. I remember visiting Universal Studios, standing in line for 2 hours just get on the Back to the Future ride. I didn’t just feel real – I was in the DeLorean, flying through the skies chasing Biff.
Great, but so what?
Maybe VR could be useful for a military pilot, safely at base, piloting a drone into combat maneuvers. Maybe VR could be useful for a physician in New York doing surgery on a patient in Cape Town. But for regular ‘ol me, what use could I have for VR besides entertainment?
I think I first starting thinking of augmented reality (AR) after reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or maybe Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash. I know I associate AR with cyberpunk – how high tech alters human society in the near future – the particular form of science fiction that interests me.
AR is much more attractive than VR, because it is location agnostic. Human interaction with the environment is a precious thing, and I don’t want to suspend myself in a chamber and transport my senses to a distant place.
But I wouldn’t mind enhancing my daily interactions with the world around me. What would life be like if there wasn’t a wall between our regular lives and the lives we spent sitting at a screen?
There was an issue of Popular Science a few years back that highlighted America’s “Future Warrior”. With a new generation of warfare focusing on urban counter-terrorism instead of army-level maneuvers, there would be less focus on big “shock and awe” technology, and more focus on the human soldier.
From helmet visors with target tracking to exoskeleton body armor that increased a soldier’s strength, I thought the future warrior sounded pretty fucking scary (in that warm, fuzzy, hug-my-flag sort of way).
I have friends working in these industries, and though they can’t tell me what they do (naturally, they’d have to kill me), they assure me that these sorts of things, and more, are on the way.
But the problem has always been power. How do you power all the badass gadgets for prolonged deployment in hostile territory?
We civilians have this sweet piece of infrastructure called a power grid, and we’re lucky enough to be able to sleep in beds at night and plug in our devices. It’s a pretty lucky thing, and yet another public resource we too often take for granted.
Are we on the precipice of a revolution in civil society from AR?
There is a lot of talk in marketing about the so-called 3rd screen. The first two screens refer to the TV and PC, respectively. The third? That tiny screen on mobile devices.
“It’s all about the third screen,” says Sprint CEO Gary Forsee in USA Today. That’s a self-serving premonition if I ever heard one, but he happens to be right.
Of course, shortsighted cell phone manufacturers and service providers will completely miss the boat on the real revolution, since their worldview is limited to the paradigm of their current business models.
I was recently at the Columbia Institute of Tele-Information (CITI) symposium on location-based services, but even in that room of experts, AR wasn’t mentioned (except perhaps briefly in the context of 3D mapping by Danny Moon of UpNext).
AR is so much bigger – it’s about RFID chips implanted in everything (including us), complex localized mesh networks, and the abandonment of all screens in favor of sensory enhancements.
If there were ever a piece of science fiction technology that is sure to become a reality, it’s the contact lens as a computer display. I mean, how much cooler can that get?
There’s some law that says people overestimate technological advancement in the short run, but underestimate it in the long run. I can’t remember where I heard it, so please forgive the lack of citation.
Technology won’t make our society unrecognizable in 2012, but don’t be surprised when 2030 rolls around and nothing is the same.
Some things are coming sooner, rather than later.
The iPhone is a pretty special device. It doesn’t have that much in terms of unique technology, but its popularity and ubiquity (not in ownership, but in mindshare) make it an inspirational platform for developers.
Platform ubiquity is important in technology (see Metcalfe’s law). The iPhone’s popularity has let some incredible things come out of the lab and into consumers’ pockets.
Here’s an example of what AR could be like with the iPhone:
Yes, it’d be a lot cooler if the windshield was the display, with a universal connection. Or better, just your contact lens. Still, starting to get there?
To be honest, I don’t think the iPhone is going to be the device that starts the AR avalanche. It isn’t popular enough, and it’s locked down by the manufacturer.
More likely, it will be Google’s Android platform that sparks the revolution. I hope all manufacturers and developers see the value in adopting an open source system.
Or, it could be something we have yet to see.
Here’s another example, where Johnny Lee demonstrates what a $40 Nintendo Wii controller can do when hacked in the lab. Mind blowing stuff here:
The point is this: I don’t want to isolate the world’s information from my every day life. I want an overlay, one reality on top of another, to enhance life. I’ll want to turn it on and off – I don’t want to know the current temperature of the Sun while I’m watching it set – but I do want data availability.
Oh, and I want it cheap, made for the masses, and accessible by all. That would change the world.
In the near future, we won’t sit down at our screens any more. Beyond the near future, but sooner than you think, we won’t even have screens anymore.