Last week, the In The City club brought a panel of speakers, to discuss the future of augmented reality. Expertly chaired by my fellow BBC commentator, Dan Sodergren, Google’s Jennifer Alexander, the BBC’s Maria Stukoff, and I, ranged from today’s embryonic experience to predictions of tomorrow’s reality. We were followed by a presentation from Microsoft’s always-excellent James Akrigg, on Hololens. A few pieces of the discussion stand out in my mind.
Firstly, a comment I made — not for the first time — really seemed to get a lot of attention on Twitter. I spoke in defence of Google Glass, which seems to have become a bit of a joke amongst the tech community.
It’s a point I’ve made before, but I don’t think Google Glass was a failed product. Rather, it was a successful experiment — one that an organisation like Alphabet can easily afford, and for which its leaders should be applauded. Glass taught us a lot about the state of the art of the technology, and all its weaknesses. But more importantly it showed us where we were at as a society in terms of accepting a very visible form of human augmentation, and all of its social consequences. Glass forced us to consider what it means to have clearly distinct classes of digital haves, and have-nots. What it means to live in an always-on society where everyone is always on camera.
Lenses and implants
Secondly, Maria raised the question of future access media: contact lenses and even implants. I’ve spoken in the past about my scepticism on implanted computers, and this hasn’t changed following Elon Musk’s investment in creating a neural lace. It’s not that I don’t think this will be a possible technology. I absolutely believe it will be possible, and that when it comes it will likely provide a practical advantage in terms of communication bandwidth to those who adopt it. But this feels like a distant technology to me, and one that has huge technical, social, and regulatory barriers to overcome. Our understanding of the brains’ operation remains hazy. Once a device is implanted it needs to be something you don’t need to change or upgrade — without major advances in surgery this will be a major procedure.
For the next thirty years, implanted technology will be a personal choice, like getting a tattoo, rather than a ubiquitous technology like the smartphone. The contact lens, by comparison, may be much closer than you think. A tiny, high-bandwidth wireless receiver, that harvests power from radio waves and translates the signal into a pixel overlay on your eye, seems very possible. What I don’t know is enough about lenses and how still they stay against the eye: if it slides around a bit, that is going to be very disorienting.
Mostly mixed reality
The statement I made that didn’t get the attention I expected, was that most of the people in the room — overwhelmingly employed in technology businesses — would spend most of their working day in mixed reality within a decade.
Mixed reality is increasingly the accepted term for ‘posh’ AR: high-precision overlays of digital information over the physical world. That information could be virtual objects, people, spaces or just about anything, realistically (or otherwise) rendered in 3D and so tightly locked to your physical reality that it can appear to interact with it. Virtual objects can be placed on real tables. Virtual billboards pasted on real walls.
Right now, the mixed reality experience is limited. I’m fond of reminding James Akrigg that the field of view in Microsoft’s Hololens is relatively shallow. But this is a backhanded compliment: Microsoft has solved the difficult issues of locating objects in space. Its constraints are the processing power and battery life that can be crammed into a truly wearable device without it being tethered — as most high-end VR headsets are today. As processing and battery capability improves, Microsoft can expand the field of view without having to fundamentally upgrade the core technology — even though I understand it could still bear a few improvements.
As Hololens and similar technologies are further condensed, the prospect of a world where most of our lives are spent in a blended reality of atoms and holograms is increasingly realistic, and I would argue, probable. The advantage conferred by high-bandwidth, three-dimensional interactions with digital systems will be hard to ignore.
This undoubtedly presents a risk though. Some people’s grip on reality is already weak. Imagine the nightmares a child might have after straying into an inappropriate AR experience. You can’t hide from the Cybermen behind the sofa, as I remember doing, when they can walk around it to find you.
Mental illness at all stages in life is increasingly recognised as the un-tackled challenge. Messing with our reality is undoubtedly going to place increasing strain on those already struggling.
These aren’t arguments against progressing with augmented, or mixed, reality. For a start, I think that would be pointless: it’s a small next-step on a long programme of development narrowing the gap between us and our machines. It would also be unnecessarily limiting: this will enable the further augmentation of human capability, something we have strived for since we first picked up a rock and used it as a tool. But they arguments that this is a step we should take consciously, and as with so many technology-driven steps, it does not feel like the debate is taking place beyond small panels like ours.
We need more highly public experiments, like Google Glass, to drive this debate into the public consciousness.