Saturday, August 15, 2009

Augmenting Reality

The subject of augmented reality recently came up on one of the forums I visit, and predictably, the thread was full of people squeeing over how awesome it would be to be able to delegate more and more and more memory and comprehension tasks to their phones - not exactly in those WORDS, mind you, but I feel it's most honest to get my own personal feelings about the whole things out the door soonest.

Augmented reality promises to be the killer app of the early 21st century. The BBC recently reported on an in-development AR application for the iPhone, currently the alpha and omega of AR functionality, that uses the phone's camera, accelerometer, and GPS to display directions to the nearest Underground station when the phone is held up.

Sure, it has the promise to revolutionize the way we interact with people and the world. What concerns me is that it won't necessarily do that in a good way. Frankly, the implications of augmented reality becoming widespread scare the shit out of me.

Privacy, even the extremely basic expectations of privacy one has in the public sphere, has the potential to be even further eroded by the wide availablility of AR systems. Facial recognition technology is proceeding apace even now; for the last two years, adding the string "&imgtype=face" to a Google Images search will reprocess your search request with Google's facial recognition technology. Sure, it's not foolproof; when I searched "toronto" and appended the string, the eighth hit was an ordinary picture of the Toronto skyline, but technology always marches on.

Twenty years from now, when reasonably mature AR systems are available, I have no trouble imagining rigs that run with facial recognition software that, upon seeing a passer-by on the street, could scan the internet for matching photos and slap their name above their head in a virtual space that only the AR-user could see. You wouldn't have to go to Cheers for everyone to know your name. What further worries me about that prospect, though, is that there are people who cheerlead it.

I'm sorry, but my preference for every stranger with an augmented reality system to not be able to know who I am probably outweighs your desire to not have to worry about forgetting someone's name and being embarrassed by that. I'd rather not have to walk around in public wearing massive sunglasses in order to not be recognized, thank you.

Augmented reality is one of those big topics I'll probably be returning to again and again. I foresee it being the "cell phone craze" of the 21st century, and if that's the case I can take comfort in the knowledge that I'll most likely remain an outside observer - I don't have a cell phone, let alone a smart phone, so why would I need AR?

Unless, of course, they start redesigning society so that mechanical assistance of that sort is mandatory. Happiness is mandatory, citizen. Praise Friend Computer.

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