Augmented reality, diminished?

Mar 05

Augmented reality… reality enhanced with a little bit extra.

I first came across it (a couple of years ago?) in the toy section of Myer Melbourne, where you could hold a box of Lego in front of a camera and watch a screen on which the box that you were holding came to life – there were my hands, holding the box, and then came the sound of a truck, and the truck came into view by driving onto the Lego box (the box of Lego of course contained the pieces required to make said truck), and pulled up right in the middle of the box. Little Lego men climbed out of the truck and started unloading it – right next to my hands. Even more freaky was the fact that as I twisted the box, the truck stayed put on the box – the perspective simply changed, just as it would if there was a toy truck sitting on the box – I could turn the box and look at the truck and little lego men from different angles.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, check this out (go full screen):

..or you could download an app for yourself (search for ‘augmented reality’ in your appropriate app store – ‘String’ is a good place to start for the examples above) and experience the freakishness first hand.

It’s a hot topic in our house as my wife is now involved in online delivery and is developing a research proposal to consider the effects of such technologies. To a philosopher it could appear that even if Descartes’ Demon (the idea of an evil demon who presents an entirely fictional reality as ‘real’ to us unsuspecting humans – think along the lines of The Matrix) was a stretch as anything beyond an interesting idea, we’re approaching a time when it’s an entirely plausible possibility.

Of course, the proponents of such technology don’t promote it in such a way. Check out Google’s ‘Glass’ project for an example of their take on augmented reality:


What that perky presentation doesn’t highlight (apart from the risks of having a wireless device stuck on your face all day) is the inevitable advertisements popping out of shop fronts as you walk down the street (“skip this ad and return to reality in 5 seconds”), or the parental filter required to stop the virtual stripper popping out of that seedy joint on the corner.

But no, it certainly can’t all be bad. And, after all, augmented reality is arguably just an extension of our age-old, very human tendency to alter our reality. I’m sitting in ‘Kidz Bizz’ right now as my children play on three storeys of lurid, foam-clad play equipment – something we’d certainly never encounter in nature – and while some of us may despair of how much time kids spend indoors in built environments, we don’t generally concern ourselves with the changing nature of reality that such inventions could bring with them (but perhaps that’s because we’re on a not-so-gradual slippery slope… what would the parents of five generations ago have thought about such things?) Perhaps more convincingly, musical instruments are a technology developed over millennia and I doubt anyone would argue that we as a species have become the poorer for their existence.

Digital alterations of reality should arguably not feel at all threatening since they’ve been with us for a long time. Parents, for a few generations, have marvelled how two people who have spent all day at school can find so much to talk about of an evening. I suspect that this is because the medium creates its own opportunity to present a constructed self, constructed by the presentation of sound only, in the absence of the remainder of the person; in effect, it’s not the same two people communicating. Similarly, the hearer only hears the voice and is free to construct an entire person around the voice, and free to interpret/misinterpret intonations as evidence of motivations that best suit the hearer’s preferred picture of the whole person speaking. Any images that accompany the voice are only memories of the speaker – perhaps preferred ones – not necessarily affected by the actual reality. This is of course a meme that’s been extended and amusingly exploited several times.

Facebook, YouTube, Google Circles and others extend this in allowing us to post information about ourselves to potentially different groups of people. The act of sharing something on Facebook is something to which previous generations had no real equivalent: if my grandfather found something amusing, he might talk to a couple of mates about it at the pub, or (probably laboriously) make a copy of it and pin it up somewhere, but there was simply no way he could’ve made dozens of people simultaneously aware of multiple things he found amusing, worthwhile, concerning, or outrageous  We have the ability to project a persona – one which makes these statements – in a relative split second.

It’s also a fair assumption that the vast majority of Facebook users have friends who aren’t friends in the traditional sense of the word. The psychological effects of cyberbullying are something of which most of us are aware through media reports or personal experience, and it follows that our interactions with such Facebook friends also do have an effect on our sense of self – perhaps not in the same way as do the interactions with our traditional friends, but an effect nonetheless.

This may not, of course, necessarily be a bad thing. Indeed, I expect that many people find a greater freedom of expression in digital media than in ‘real’ interpersonal interactions, and that a good number of people probably feel that their digital self is a more accurate representation of who they are than the impressions people may have received from direct personal exchanges. I personally have always enjoyed expressing myself with the written word more than the spoken word – well before a word processor came into my life. I’ve long felt that I’m at a disadvantage in most social formats because I’m simply someone who likes to think rather than speak, and speak only once I’ve had a lot of time to think.

Going as far as the Google Glass ‘always immersed’ model of our interaction with the digital world, there still may not be anything ‘bad’ about it, even if our fundamental notions of reality change. Consider William James’ words from The Varieties of Religious Experience (the Gifford Lectures, Edinburgh University, 1901-2), regarding augmented reality of another bent (excuse the pun):

Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.


Perhaps what the digitised self does – and I suspect this is what concerns me most – is whittles down our opportunity for introspection and quiet reflection; we may come to understand ourselves more through how we present to other people than though self-examination. Very few of us are ‘alone’ for a even a day anymore – we’re reachable via text messages and phone calls at the very least. If there is something “out there”, beyond us and independent of our experience – whether it’s a being, another plane of existence, or alternate realities – our ability to connect with that something may well be impacted by the multiple connections demanding our attention elsewhere. In short, my fear is that augmented reality is not the kind of augmentation that, in James’ words, would “apply the requisite stimulus” to open another reality, but rather that it will just clutter this one beyond recognition – of reality and ourselves.

I can just see my kids coming home from school:

“Dad, can we get some Google Glasses?”

“No, for crying out loud, if you want augmented reality, go and sit in the garden and drop some ecstasy or something. Here, take some hash cookies – I slaved over a hot stove and you haven’t even touched them!”