Imagine the same world, but your glasses are scanning every conversation in order to personalise a barrage of advertising. Some locations are brimming with helpful holographic instructions, whereas in others, neglect and poor connectivity make them scarce. A sophisticated facial recognition system tracks every stranger you meet… and allows those strangers to track your every move.
These are some of the best- and worst-case scenarios for augmented reality, a technology that some of the world’s largest tech companies are promoting as the future of computing. AR hardware designers have laid the groundwork for a new generation of mass-market products over the last decade, even as technical hurdles continue to limit its viability. AR has the potential to exacerbate existing crises of privacy, trust, and consent in the coming years. But it’s also an opportunity to consciously rethink how we approach computing.
For decades, AR has appeared in science fiction, specialised industries, and high-tech experiments. However, in the 2010s, major corporations — as well as countless startups — began to view AR headsets as a potential mass-market platform.
Microsoft imagined people wearing its HoloLens headset to watch the Super Bowl. Google launched its ambitious Glass platform as a possible successor to phones, then aided the AR startup Magic Leap in attracting billions of dollars in funding. More recently, telecoms have partnered with AR companies such as the Chinese startup Nreal in the hope that high-bandwidth holograms will generate demand for 5G networks.
The products of these companies, as well as those of other major players such as Snap, Vuzix, and Niantic, frequently look very different. However, the majority of them promise a one-of-a-kind combination of three features.
Their hardware is wearable, hands-free, and potentially always on — you don’t have to grab and put away a device when you’re done with it.
Rather than being confined to a discrete, self-contained screen, their images and audio can blend with or compensate for normal sensory perception of the world.
Nobody has been able to integrate these capabilities into a mainstream consumer device in the last decade. The majority of glasses are bulky, and the images they produce are shaky, transparent, or cut off by a narrow field of view. Despite experiments with voice controls, finger tracking, and handheld hardware, no one has developed a foolproof method of interacting with them.
Regardless, we’ve seen hints of the medium’s power and challenges — and even sceptics of the technology should pay attention to them.
It’s also unclear how AR systems will generate revenue — or what kinds of behaviours the resulting business models will encourage. Some companies in the field, such as Apple, sell traditional hardware. Others, such as Facebook and Snap, rose to prominence through ad-supported social networks.
Facebook has stated that it is not yet considering business models for its glasses, while Snap has stated that advertising isn’t the only option, emphasising the value of experiences such as AR-powered retail.
The last ten years in technology have been a long struggle to manage crises that have already reached a boiling point. Meanwhile, the fact that AR glasses are still a long-awaited, unrealized dream can buy us time to figure out what they can do for the world — and whether we actually want them.