Enhanced: imagining the social future of augmented reality
The most important thing about augmented reality is not what it can do for us, but what it can do to us
Mandatory disclosure: I work at Unity, and its technology powers certain types of XR applications. Opinions in this post are my own, and they are unrelated to my work.
Tech industry analysts speculate that almost one fifth of Facebook’s employees are working on mixed reality tech, and Apple is widely rumored to release augmented reality glasses as early as end-2021. Whatever the true timeline is, augmented reality is coming. A lot has been said about the kind of technical capabilities it will bring. Instead, I want to explore what the technology would mean for the world.
When squeezing all the camera, GPS, and Wi-Fi gadgetry into a form factor smaller than a deck of tarot cards, engineers working on the iPhone couldn’t have predicted the rogue wave of economic change that would follow. The wave that swallowed the photo film and taxi industries, and gave birth to gig economy, citizen journalism, and influencer marketing. Since then, social change that smartphones unleashed upon us became far more interesting than the technical novelty of stalking romantic partners with a pinch-to-zoom precision.
I started thinking seriously about AR after watching an anime series called Dennou Coil — coincidentally in the same year when the first iPhone came out. In it, a bunch of Japanese tweens explore glitchy mysteries of early stage consumer AR somewhere in the digital underbelly of the fantasy city of Daikoku. While it’s nothing particularly deep, Dennou Coil made me believe that the most important thing about augmented reality is not what it can do for us—it’s what it can do to us.
Today I want to explore two fundamental aspects of being a human, and how they might change with the advent of AR: showing ourselves and seeing each other. The intention of this little exercise, however, is not to give any predictions, but simply to play with the many possible futures.
I also want to change the conversation from augmenting reality to enhancing it. The difference in words might seem subtle at first, but it is really the difference between more and better. To me, a compelling future is not the future where we have more notifications, more content, more stuff before our exhausted eyes—it’s the future of better means of expression, modes of connection, ways of being.
Nicknames, userpics, 3d avatars, multiple Instagram profiles, emoji-clad Yat handles. We, humans, seem to pursue every chance to escape who we really are: meat sacks packed tight with emotional baggage and concealed identities.
Digital technology has long moved from the realm of utility and into the realm of fashion. In the exact same way that “dad” sneakers do more than simply protect your feet from gravel and occasional dog poop, your choice of tech signals the world who you want to be. There’s no reason why enhanced reality shouldn’t be different. In fact, I’d be surprised if it were.
Most mixed reality design studies have been focused on consuming information, and not on producing it. What if we changed that focus? Imagine the world where each of us could transmit our preferred XR avatars everywhere we go. It wouldn’t have to be something particularly radical, and I can imagine few people who’d want to look like a walking potato in others’ headsets. Instead, it can be something as simple as a digital version of makeup.
Now, let’s toy with this idea further. Imagine how much difference this could make in the lives of transgender people who are struggling to cope with their identities. How could this change the lives of burn victims? Would that give birth to new forms of consent? Can a person deny consent when others ask to look at them without an XR filter?
In other words, can an avatar in enhanced reality become your primary identity?
Seeing each other
Maya Angelou said that all we want is to be seen. Advances in camera hardware, computer vision, sound stream processing, and live speech recognition turn every real world interaction into an inference problem. In simple English this means that your headset will watch tirelessly your every encounter with fellow meat sacks, and it will let you know things about them.
Let’s suppose that reality headsets could help us tell the emotional state of a person. On one hand, that would be a privacy nightmare and could lead to discrimination in the workplace and other social contexts. On the other, this kind of technology could help people with cognitive and emotional disregulation disorders to integrate and relate to the rest of us on a level that’s simply inaccessible to many of them now.
What if some of us connected their enhanced reality avatars with personal activity or health trackers, and then shared that information voluntarily and on demand? What if a sales assistant at a sports store could see how often you work out and how many miles per week you run, so that they could suggest the best shoes for you?
What would that mean for dating? Because let’s admit it, if a technology can be used to find a mate, it will be used to find a mate. Imagine how dating would look in the enhanced reality world: you set up your XRCupid profile, adjust your search settings, and then go out to a bar, a park, or an art gallery. And then the people who fit your search criteria see that you’re down to whatever it is you’re down to. (No judgement. This is a safe space.)
I’ll stop here. Kevin Kelly wrote how “the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us”. I can’t wait to swipe left on the pandemic and see how to world is going to look in the years to come.