Extra Reality, Coming to an Eyeball Near You

Don’t look now, but you’re surrounded by hidden messages.  Colorful arrows line the sidewalk, menus hover over the diner down the street, and a grand star map looms overhead – even when it’s the middle of the day and overcast.  They’re all written out in invisible digital ink, and you can see them all – if you have the right app.

Welcome to the era of augmented reality, or AR for short.  It’s already changing the way we look at the world, and it’s only getting started.

Augmented Reality for tourists

courtesy wikimedia commons/greysmallhorse

AR works by reading your global position and the direction you’re looking.  It then overlays useful information onto your visual field.  The phenomenon is currently confined to smartphones, and if you own one you’ve probably had an augmented experience by now.  Yelp lets you look through your phone to highlight nearby businesses, complete with star rating and dollar signs.  Google Sky Map replaces your view with the current positions of stars and planets.  Most impressively, Word Lens magically transmutes any Spanish words you’re looking at into the equivalent English ones!  And there are many, many others – Layar alone offers hundreds of overlays from ATMs to real estate listings.

Like Reality… But More
Normally I use this space to gush about implications for the future, but frankly, this is a tough one: I feel as though the future’s already here.  Augmented reality may seem like a natural extension of looking up information on Google, but make no mistake: we’re creating an entire invisible world, all around us.

Last week, we looked at a similar possibility regarding Near-Field Chips.  The differences here are 1) AR is not interactive, as NFCs are (at least not yet), and 2) AR could appear literally anywhere, while NFCs will be in highly specific locations.  Think broad vs. deep.  Of course, nothing says we can’t combine the two – imagine scanning down the street to see all the nearby data caches, or the number of people checked in to a particular spot.

Viewing nearby deals through a smartphone

courtesy wikimedia/augmented8coupons

Reality’s Next Enhancement
In any case, the foundations of this parallel dimension are already in place.  When imagining the future, what more could we possibly hope for?

For starters, let me suggest getting rid of that smartphone interface.  If you think about it, this other world isn’t all that convenient when you can only see it through a two-inch window that you have to hold in front of your face all the time.

credit: Institute of Physics

Wait, what’s this?  Someone’s already working on it!  Granted, these augmented reality contact lenses can only display 1 pixel, and they can only pick up signals from a couple centimeters away.  But if this works out, you’ll soon be stopping by your optometrist to pick up the latest in seamless reality enhancement.  A multi-layered, hands-free virtual world will be thriving as far as the eye can see.

Just remember to turn off that star map before you get on the highway.


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3 thoughts on “Extra Reality, Coming to an Eyeball Near You

  1. The whole contact lens thingy is something I would love! At first. Down side: It would be hard to see other peoples actual eyes, and they see yours. That could be fundamentally damaging to human interactions; personal and formal relationships alike.

    While something like a contact makes sense from an ease-of-use standpoint, the best application might actually be a functional device that can be turned on and off at will.

    • I think the way the contacts work is by displaying a signal from a nearby device, which you could presumably use to turn it off or otherwise control it. If nothing else, you’d need some way to choose which layers you’re looking at, or be completely overwhelmed.

      Your point about human interaction is not lost on me, though. Making a significant change to the simple gesture of eye contact could have wide social repercussions; even the very concept of augmented reality implies ever-present digital distractions. Many already decry the “smartphone culture” in which groups of friends spend all their time on devices, even when they’re physically together. It’s certainly a conversation worth having – I’d like to address it in a future post. Thanks for the thoughts!

      • Indeed. I’ll be looking forward to that entry! I’m aware that some studies have indicated a lack of eye contact (and other body language) can account for most road rage. In our cars we lose these subtle communications that a person normally sends and receives. People don’t usually get sidewalk rage after all. Automobiles are a modern example of technology fundamentally affecting human interactions in unpredicted ways!

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