While Google’s Project Glass has recently generated quite a stir with the possibilities of augmented reality, the idea is not exactly new. In the 1990’s MIT Cyborgs carried around huge backpacks stuffed with computer hardware to remain connected to the digital world via their clunky screen-goggles. Sherry Turkle, an MIT researcher herself, discusses them in an article entitled “Always-on/Always-On-You: The Tethered Self,” which analyzes how augmented reality transforms human interaction into a world in which people are ensnared in round-the-clock digital social networks.
Yet the official description for the Google’s Project Glass is just as optimistic as Turkle’s analysis is cynical:
We believe technology should work for you — to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t. […] one that helps you explore and share your world, putting you back in the moment.
Here, Google tries to convey their conception of augmented reality; a reality with digital assistance. The big question is whether the actual result will be as positive and beneficial as the promotional remarks suggest. Some Pop Culture Hackers have answered this question negatively with their own humorous but serious parody of Google’s promotional video. The new technology-mediated reality, they suggest, will be “ADmented” (as in filled with ads) rather than “augmented.”
The way these artists see the matter, augmented reality devices will be produced and marketed by corporations operating under a profit maximization paradigm. Companies like Google (or Facebook) are in the business of selling advertisement space and the data they are able to collect or compute from their users. There is no reason to believe that commercialized augmented reality will be designed and set up for any other purpose. But with this technology, Google and it’s kind will be able to track not only digital signatures, but every detail of an individual’s life.
To draw a picture of how this is likely to translate into a user’s real life consider this scenario: Suppose you want to go buy a new toaster, wearing your Google Glasses. As soon as your augmented reality device recognizes the toaster you picked up to have a closer look at it will display ads either from that manufacturer or it’s close competitor, or whether Wal-Mart offers a better deal, depending on who pays them most. Being able to track your eyeballs, these devices will analyze visual focus and compute your personal preferences with advertisements. This technology will open up a whole new level of advertising and marketing research. And the first forays into the world of augmented reality, such as Starbucks’ augmented coffee cups and a giant, interactive AR panel on Times Square, are evidence that this technology is primarily for commercial purposes.
It is important to keep in mind that augmented reality devices like Google Glasses are not just a new product. They open up a whole new frontier or framework enabling myriads of new programs and applications. One might even call it a new language, enabling users to share a new kind of visual communication.
And it is exactly this potential that raises the issue of bot-mediated reality and how augmented reality could actually prove to be the liberating technology described in Google’s promotional material. It could be designed and implemented to help navigate and manage the control and supervision of the current bot-mediated world. It could be set up to enable a kind of operating system for democracy and individual freedom.
Daniel Suarez is an IT-Specialist and author of the novels Daemon and Freedom. In this exceptionally informative interview, Suarez introduces the topic of bot-mediated reality, and the following lecture (hosted by The Long Now Foundation on FORA.tv) Suarez goes on to suggest a link between bot-mediated reality and augmented reality.
And in fact there are reasons to be optimistic about a future with augmented reality. The student who invented Sixth Sense, a technology that is most likely to become a key feature in augmented reality devices decided to make his project and findings open source. He even teaches people how to recreate the system for them selves.
Another reason for hope is the Android OS, with which Google Glasses will most certainly come equipped. Because Android is set up to be open source, chances are high that hackers will be able to come up with a rooted, community-supported and open-source alternative OS for those Glasses, just as they have done for smart-phones. Yet this will probably come at the same costs as it currently does with smart-phones: First of all you lose your warranty as soon as you remove the original, branded Android version. Secondly, to set up a rooted alternative like MIUI you need at least some level of IT sophistication to get it up and running and maintain it properly. Thirdly, this results in the most important cost: exclusiveness. Having a small elite of hackers and tech-savvy users capable of utilizing augmented reality as it theoretically could and should be, is not sufficient if the premise for Suarez Vision as outlined in his lecture is the availability to everyone.
Finally one has to appreciate that society is rapidly moving into a digital future that no one has really thought through. As this article indicates, within the next few decades a new world will be established, one that transcends traditional barriers of space and time as we know it. And it will be the choices and decisions made today that will determine whether the future will hold a truly augmented reality, one that enhances human experience and well-being, or the ADmented profit-oriented reality introduced by corporations like Google. For this reason, there is an urgent need for an education that prepares students for the digital future they will surely face, an education that raises awareness about topics such as online and offline tracking, data collection, open source software, and the internet filter bubble.