We're entering a world of augmented reality (AR) which might sound scary to rational-thinking grown-ups but perfectly natural to iPhone-savvy toddlers.
Thursday 17 February 2011
Augmented reality is the place between virtual reality – where you can walk, talk, or act out in alternate worlds, like Avatar – and, well, reality. Reality, to those struggling with the concept, is the place where unpaid electricity bills mean no more computer games, or where kids get up at 6am every Sunday.
While this augmented world might seem a little way out to anyone born in the 1970s or earlier, the millennium generation has no beef with it. They've grown up with the sort of hand-held wizardry that their elders only read about in sci-fi books.
Teens and pre-teens nowadays can fire off sweet nothing messages to ‘tweople', or ‘twits' if you prefer, just round the corner or on the other side of the world while riding their bike or walking through the mall. Though multitasking mayhem can ensue – watch this twit fall into a fountain while texting. The woman in the video was later quoted as saying, “texting and walking at the same time is dangerous.” She says she could have been walking in front of a bus!
I guess in the augmented world, the tweet or text would go something like … “Bus coming straight for me! LOL” If you don't want to take her testimony then it's probably a good idea to become a better multitasker and learn to be tweet smart –sorry about that one!
Of toddlers and birds
Two-year-olds who've been allowed to play Angry Bird or other popular apps on their dad's iPhone or who have become familiar with touch-screen technology now toddle up to the television and start sweeping their sticky little fingers across the screen like the rated G version of Minority Report. When nothing happens they look at you, the Fat Controller, raise their chubby hands and shrug, as if to say “what kind of low-tech rubbish is this?”
Meanwhile, the Facebook generation are signing up – in some cases not, but that's a potential legal story – to ‘Locate me' with gusto, like it is perfectly natural that your every move should be documented, that this phenomenal invasion of privacy is kinda cool because you can meet your friends, like, spontaneously.
And this is where AR picks up an existential tinge. How spontaneity could even exist in a world where every utterance and physical expulsion is scrupulously documented by the world's best documentary maker – you – is beyond me and beyond anyone who still watches TV at night.
The iPhone is ground zero for the growing class of ‘augmented realtors'. According to the fans at iPhoneNess: “Augmented reality is one of the most exciting technologies around. If you have watched some of those modern Hollywood movies, you have probably seen how our world would look 20-30 years from now. Who knows when augmented applications become mainstream but they are already making their way to the iPhone platform. Augmented reality is the future but thanks to these augmented reality apps for iPhone, you can experience the future today.”
These guys offer up a long list of current apps to prove their point. Everything from golf range-finding gadgets and trekking tools to experimental solutions for colour-blindness. And the thing that strikes this old-school technophile is that a lot of these apps and mashups combining, for instance, satellite geo-location technology which pinpoints your exact location and mobile navigation devices, are not (or perhaps should not be) kids stuff. They are practical applications for grown-ups like me who took up golf when real sports got too hard.
But like the first-wave attempt to make a success of e-commerce and the dot-com bomb of the 1990s, the grown-ups today are just not clued-up or interested enough to fully appreciate what's out there in the AR sphere. But toddlers to teenagers have no preconceptions about technology. It just is what it is, like milk is quite good on cereal.
Every day new apps are created. Some are very innovative and might one day save your life, some like Angry Birds are simple and a bit of fun for young and old. Others, which combine geo-location technology and social networking, tell us a bit about our society and in particular younger people's willingness or need to commune in the virtual world. And their disregard for privacy and even safety.
But maybe this notion of privacy and identity is what augmented reality is all about. It brings into question age-old beliefs and many a good philosophical theory. Philosophers tell us identity is what ever makes an entity definable and recognisable. It comes from the Latin identitas or ‘sameness'. Leibniz supposed that two things sharing every attribute are not merely similar but must indeed be the same thing.
So if in this augmented world, whether Second Life or just sophisticated apps on iPhones, if we accept this world without question, and represent ourselves as our avatars or other personas, are we losing or gaining identity? Are we similar or the same? Are we cool or another banal member of the commune?
Perhaps it won't matter in the end. Perhaps these are ponderings of a generation that is trying to hold fast to two-dimensional formats like terrestrial TV. Of course our kids don't ask the questions and perhaps don't need to. All they want to know is why they can't sweep across to Sesame Street from Dora the Explorer on that thing in the corner of the living room.
This article is published here with the author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.