July 22, 2008

Who Needs Virtual Reality? Give me Augmented Reality

NOTE: This post is old, and is probably on different subject matter than my current writing. It is possible the information is outdated or my opinions have changed. -- Josh Klein, May 28, 2012

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.

My friend Greg Elliott has been doing some amazing stuff with SynchStep, “the beat that follows your feet.” David Pogue recently reviewed a number of iPhone Apps.

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.

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  • http://noahgreenstein.com/wordpress Noah

    The windshield navigation display is almost here: http://mvs.net/index.html.

    But this takes the cake: Intra Body Communication

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    Thanks for the links, Noah. I’d seen the intra-body communication thing before, but not the windshield nav.

  • http://www.theappleofmyi.com Jon Moss

    Josh, this is a great! VR for games, AG for real life – I so hope we get this in our lifetimes.

    That TED video is just superb :-)

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  • http://www.johnmarkengle.com John Mark Engle

    Nice article! You know I lurves me some cyberpunk. In fact, I think it was your copy of Snowcrash that I read…

    Anyway, here’s another Johnny Lee video demonstrating the head tracking thing… I think the recording gives you a better 3d effect than the ted one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd3-eiid-Uw

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    @Jon Moss – Thanks. We most certainly will get it in our lifetimes. It’s almost there already, and things move faster than we think.

    @John Mark – You’re so right, that video gives a much better demonstration. I didn’t realize that you could even get “behind” objects in the environment. That is some serious stuff!

  • http://www.rateoholic.com Darkflame

    AR is great, but why does everyone keep going on about Contact lens, when glass’s could be made TODAY ? It seems such a bezire oversite by both speculators and the industary. We can do decent res displays now, or even side-eye projection.

    Theres nothing technicaly stopping slimline glass’s with everything needed. GPS/Gallio,Gryos, GPRS/3G/WiFiMax, TOLED displays…everythings here already. We can do it *right now*
    We just need to put it together.
    It needs investiment and refinement, but no big new tech.
    ===

    Also, I strongly recomend the series “Denno Coil” that anyone wants a very realistic near-future where AR has become the norm.

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    @Darkflame – thanks for the comment. Tp get this kind of stuff, it needs to be commercially viable… so you’re right that it makes more sense for glasses vs lenses, decent res displays, etc. There isn’t anything technical preventing it, just no businesses that have decided (or maybe tried?) it works as a product.

    I’m most interested in the technology for technology’s sake in this case, hence my somewhat pie-in-the-sky discussion. It’s funny how much I wanted video chat with a dick tracy-style watch when I was a little kid, and now that tech is widespread. So, it’s fascinating to imagine… now what?

  • http://www.acornweb.com.au Stuart Steel

    If you are interested in this sort of thing, and cyberpunk I think you should read “Maneki Neko”, a short story by Bruce Stirling (William Gibson’s peer and co-creator of the whole cyberpunk movement).

    Its about a favour network mediated through mobile phones. And all the technology needed to run it is really already available
    - GPS enabled mobile phones
    - credit chips in mobile phones
    - the web and social networks

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    @Stuart – Thanks for the recommendation. The book currently on my bed stand is Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition”.

    I think it’s funny that I read fiction in order to get my mind to stop racing about web stuff before trying to sleep … yet the fiction I’m reading is pretty much about exactly that :)

    But I’ll definitely check out Bruce Stirling next!