Augmented Reality: The Future is Here
Once upon a time, virtual reality was the future. We were going to enter into cyberspace, and the worlds we would create and algorithmically grow would be so immersive that we'd want to upload ourselves into them. While this vision of reality is still being explored both in fiction and out, the idea of a computized virtual reality into which we would enter is being inverted (or extroverted) as virtual reality has come into and augmented the physical world. Augmented reality has moved to the forefront and mainstream, and by coming into our world, it is making for some interesting opportunities that I believe are better fulfilling the initial promises of virtual reality, creating experiences in which we readily immerse ourselves.
Augmented reality consists of computer-generated information (visuals, audio, GPS coordinates, textual data, etc) that is layered onto a live view of the physical world. For instance, Yelp.com (a popular website full of reviews) has a smartphone app that taps into the camera, GPS and compass of the phone so that you can use your phone to look at storefronts and restaurants on the street you're walking down, and the app will layer yelp reviews over the buildings at which you're looking.
So, reality is now being augmented with digital content that can be layered onto the physical world, enhancing what we can perceive around us. To help show how the present future of augmented reality, I'd like to share some anecdotes about our recent past, that combined, illustrate how we're already having digitally enhanced experiences of reality.
Not too long ago, when you went on a trip you needed to plan and prepare. You could purchase a guidebook of your destination, and you'd want to get a map to help orient yourself in strange new locales. If you were driving in the States, and happened to be a member of AAA (a travel club and organization), you could request a TripTik that would map out your route in a flipbook fashion. Then you could easily follow along across the miles, while also getting pointers about known construction areas and hotels, restaurants and rest stops.
Similarly, we used to have to give directions, which is actually an interesting critical thinking skill. By combining relative, spatial and cardinal directions, we can guide someone directly to a place they've never been, or get them utterly lost instead. Relative directions are oriented around the person (right, left, forward, backward, up and down). So you could tell someone to go straight and take a right at the stoplight. Spatial directions are oriented to landmarks and distance. So you could tell someone to go about 1/2 a mile and make a turn toward the river at the old mansion on the hill. And cardinal directions are oriented geographically with the world (north, south, east and west) with intermediate (or ordinal) points in between (NW, NE, SE, SW). So you could tell someone to go north and then follow the northwest fork in the road.
With the advent of public access to GPS data (that can pinpoint our precise longitude and latitude) combined with maps on our smartphones, we no longer need to worry about giving someone directions. We can just share an address, or they can search for it on their phones, and then the map application will plot out the route (making recommendations on whether you're walking, driving or taking public transportation). So, for the most part (outside of areas so off the grid as to not have good cell coverage and that haven't been mapped well with your phone's app), it's magically easy to navigate around an unfamiliar locale. You don't have to worry about directions or information, you can instantly look it all up on your phone and you're on your way.
Looking back for another example, you used to have to search around to find a good store with a knowledgeable staff who could help you find new books or music (in the case of books, a good librarian was a godsend as well). They could help make recommendations for you based on what you have already read, and through conversations on what you enjoy reading. And with music, you were mostly relegated to the Top40 rotation on the radio (unless you were lucky enough to live near a big city or a university with a good radio station). Back then, you didn't get exposed to the larger world of independent and international music until later in life (when, and if, you went off to college or moved to a city).
Along came Amazon.com, selling books online with the help of a recommendation system that culled through the millions of customers using its website, along with your own shopping and browsing patterns, to help serve up automatic recommendations. So if you like that book, you might also like this one, that one, and this. At first it was just books, but soon they added music. And I remember the cognitive dissonance the first time Amazon recommended a music CD based on the books I liked. I wasn't sure how my music and reading preferences aligned (if it all), but it helped spark the creation of a long tail of content in which you could endlessly dig through recommendations to find new media to experience and enjoy.
And with the internet in general, there is no longer any waiting around to be exposed to independent or international media. Kids in the US are familiar with the latest J-Pop stars, and anyone can readily discover reading groups online full of like-minded fans of their favorite authors. Also, there has been interesting recent work in persuasion profiling, so that it's not just about making connections, but also about pitching the recommendation most effectively. For example, you may be the type of person who more readily listens to an expert opinion, so the recommendation can reference a public figure. Or maybe you really trust your friends, so the recommendations can factor that into account. It feels like a Brave New World, as we freely share (almost everything) which can help better tailor and curate information that we actually want to have.
In a last look back for our final example, interfacing with a computer started with punch cards, advanced to command line, and then settled for some time around the desktop interface in which you primarily used a mouse and a keyboard to work with a computer that literally sat on your desktop. There were laptops that added some portability, but they borrowed the desktop interface, so it remained the dominant method to interact with the digital world of computers.
Recently, we've seen an explosion of innovations around the mobility and interfaces in our digital devices. Smartphones, like the iPhone and Android, pack impressive computational capabilities, and we can have these devices on us all the time. And gestural interactions have become the latest way to interface with these devices. We can now swipe, pinch, tap and wave with our devices. And with the Wii, followed by the Move and epitomized with the Kinect, we can now have fully embodied experiences that are more intuitive and augment how we can interact with digital media.
This reminds me of a recent keynote by Will Wright at the Inventing the Future of Games Conference in 2011. In it, he discussed the possibility of contextually aware experiences. He noted that his phone already has all the information to do this, it's just not connected together yet. To make his point, he spun out a scenario in which his calendar is aware of his schedule, the map app on his phone knows where he is, and his web browser has a sense of his interests based on his surfing patterns. Connecting the dots between all this information could provide contextually aware advice (e.g. Will was early to a meeting and had some free time, and he's a fan of antique cars, and he happened to be around the corner from a car show. So, his phone could let him know about this nearby car show that he might be interested in, and has the time to check out). Similarly, Jesse Schell gave a compelling talk at DICE in 2010 where he told a tale of the gamepocalypse where everything is "gamified." While the focus was on having games everywhere, a key component of this scenario was having digital sensors in everything so that data could be collected, collated and contextualized.
From the examples above, you can see how we've recently (and rapidly) had our reality augmented, as digital technologies have rather seamlessly integrated on intuitive levels into our daily lives. We still see explorations into virtual reality, but augmented reality has comfortably snuggled into our world. This comes at the loss of virtual reality's promise of worlds spun completely from our imaginations, and this avenue isn't being explored as actively anymore. That said, with augmented reality we gain opportunities to easily enhance our physical reality with digital overlays full of media content and information. Currently, we're seeing a lot of data visualizations of information about the world around us (from restaurant reviews to orienteering clues), but we're also seeing how augmented reality can also be a rich imaginative audio-visual experience that expands our sense of what we perceive in the world around us. I do worry about some of the critical and social thinking experiences we used to have to develop (like being able to give good directions and developing strategies and relationships to find good books and music). That said, I think part of the success of augmented reality is that it enhances and integrates these skills (as opposed to completely replacing them). It is still very helpful to have a sense of direction and a strategy for finding media, and augmented reality is a useful tool to help you do this.
Which brings us to the future that is (almost always) already present. As William Gibson has noted, "The future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed." The technology is already here, and already being used in a variety of ways. Augmented reality is enhancing and expanding how we perceive our world and our place in it. The layers are there, and they're only going to get more intertwined as the digital becomes a constant part of our "real" lives in the physical world.