Augmented Reality: The Social Implications
There is no doubt that augmented reality is slowly making its way into our daily lives. It is already a global industry worth billions of pounds (mobile AR will be worth $5.8 billion by 2017 according to a Juniper Research report) and with big players such as Google, Microsoft, IBM or Apple trying to get in the game, AR is here to stay. However, looking beyond the profits and ignoring the hardware involved in bringing this technology to the masses, how will augmented reality affect us as people?
A few months ago I read a very interesting article by John Havens about the social consequences of augmented reality. Although I agree with most of his ideas, his wide focus on related technologies (and not necessarily AR per se) eludes the purpose of his title. He sees augmented reality not just as a technology, but as a shortcut between us and the technology. The social effects of augmented reality become blurred and mashed with the effects of other technologies which lead us to the question “is AR only the facilitator of other technologies?” I think AR is more than this; it is the glue that brings many technologies together and connects them to the human brain at a very personal and intimate level. Augmented reality is the portal to our imagination.
Some might argue that this is not completely true as AR is still a ‘reality’ despite the fact that it is a technology-enabled one, while our imagination is very personal and unreal. However, according to the Oxford Dictionary imagination is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses” (does this sound familiar?!). With imagination considered one of the strongest and unique human abilities, how is a technology that has the potential of bringing our imagination to life going to influence our existence?
Lost in Our AR Imagination
All of us have tried daydreaming at least once in our lives, even if involuntarily. Do you remember how difficult it was to come from that immersive experience back to reality?! It was as if our brain sometimes preferred the world where we were in control of everything, where our wildest dreams could become reality, where our loved ones were next to us and where we felt no stress or sorrow. And who could blame us; humans have always been searching for perfection although we have never managed to come close to it, at least not in what we consider real life. That is why we have created several art forms to allow us to portray personal versions of flawless images and maybe this is one of the reasons for which we feel so fascinated by augmented reality.
AR has opened our minds allowing us to perceive a socially-accepted reality in bespoke ways. We already see special offers ‘flying’ towards us, tweets from our friends hovering above different locations, our idols walking next to us or step by step interactive instructions on how to change the cartridge of our printer. We can see how we look wearing the latest designer glasses or the outfit we always wanted without having to step in a store or spend a penny. And these are only a few things we can do with augmented reality NOW. In the near future artists will be able to “see” their creations before they are physically created, doctors could perform complicated surgeries aided by augmented reality, AR relaxation might become the next technology craze and the entertainment industry will blow our minds with bespoke AR movies and shows.
An increased personalisation of AR experiences (which is already happening) followed by a new wave of augmented reality where we can create our own digital representations of our thoughts and desires (like in a Sims-style world) will mean that, at some point, we may start to prefer the augmented world versus the real one. The danger comes when some of us may no longer be able to make the difference between the real elements and the computer generated ones. Being so immersed in the AR world, a new type of life threatening situations could emerge – the ones where we are literally ‘lost’ in our own perceptions of reality. In this case, a Wall-E scenario where we get so addicted and immersed in the digitally enhanced world that we no longer know what is happening in the real life around us may not be so far from reality.
‘Naked’ in Front of Everybody
All these technologies that provide us with bespoke augmented reality experiences need a constant feeding with data. The more bespoke the experience the more personal the information that is shared and despite all security measures, filters and firewalls placed between us and the world, our augmented reality data does not belong to us completely. Our personal thoughts, wishes, preferences and choices we make every day have an impact over what we “see” in the AR world. Companies who have the technologies and capabilities to tap into our imagination will ‘rule our world’ in the near future. They can store, exchange and even sell this information to whoever has the interest and financial resources. No matter how regulated this industry will become, a black market and grey practices will always exist.
And this does not concern only big organisations. Because we are social beings, our AR worlds will most likely ‘collide’ with others’, exchanging information and creating an AR universe in which every person on this planet can connect with anybody, a world where geographical, cultural and social boundaries will no longer exist.
This idealistic view also means that data exchanges between individuals could become a routine. And with any data transfer there is a high danger of data leaks where anything from contact details to your sexual preferences could potentially be available to anybody. It will be interested how AR information will be protected in the future to avoid such scenarios.
My Augmented Reality Enhanced Relationship
Developments in communication technology have always been made responsible for changes in how we interact with other people. On one hand, the ‘always-connected modern man’ that cannot live without technology has been intensely criticised for losing their humanity and for becoming alienated from their peers. On the other hand, the opposite perspective is equally possible. Who could disagree that having an Internet enabled device hasn’t allowed us to keep in touch with friends from the other face of the Earth?! Both views are not perfect but one thing is sure when we introduce AR in the mix: augmented reality is likely to further expand the gap between pure traditional relations and technology-based ones.
Think about the ‘legendary’ Google Glasses (so much promoted even before being released), and how they could help you (or not!) on a potential date as shown by this spoof video.
Despite the humoristic angle, this video unveils a potentially disturbing truth, that augmented reality might start playing an active role in our social relationships. From the innocent help it can bring to a date to a long term dependence on AR where we will be able to overlay on our partner’s body the image of anybody. In the future this can be taken one step further; we can have our dream relationship with a character that exists only in our imagination, based on our most personal and intimate specifications. Artificial intelligence, speech recognition and even sensory receptors can make it appear as a real person with whom we can have a discussion and even physical contact.
Despite the lengthy blog post, this only covers a small percentage of the effects augmented reality could have on our lives in the not too far future. The amount of interaction and merger between our reality and the augmented one is difficult to quantify, but one thing is for sure: it is already happening. The move from the gimmick phase to the practical and functional phase of this technology is revealing a new set of questions and possible concerns, whose answers will set the direction of the AR (r)evolution.
What other social implications do you think should be considered when talking about the future co-habitation between our reality and the augmented reality? Please leave your comments in the section below.