Technically Speaking: The future has arrived
New technology, Augmented Reality (AR), enhances real-world perceptions
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:10
The Terminator’s glowing red eyes allow him to overlay information about everyone and everything around him onto the things he “sees;” Iron Man’s suit does the same. Other movies, such as high-tech spy thrillers, show similar technological feats: in the opening scene of “Mission Impossible 4,” an IMF agent uses facial recognition contact lenses to identify a mark. Incredibly, this addition of information to video images—called “augmented reality”—is no longer a thing of fiction or the future. Augmented reality already exists in smartphone apps and is readily available online.
Augmented reality (AR) consists of overlaying a view of a physical environment with computer-generated input, such as GPS data or graphics, generally with the purpose of enhancing one’s perception of his or her surroundings. The first known reference to AR came from L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” in his 1901 novel “The Master Key,” which developed the idea of eyeglasses that overlay data onto real life. Nearly a century passed before the official term was coined in 1990, but the concept developed rapidly after. One of the first functioning AR systems, developed in 1992 at a U.S. Air Force research laboratory, used visual overlays to enhance airplane pilot performance. The intervening two decades have seen the continued integration of AR into military projects, as well into gaming systems (2000), smartphone travel apps (2008) and even ski goggles (2011).
Although we’re currently most familiar with AR as featured in cool-but-unattainable science fiction and fantasy movies and films like “Minority Report,” “Star Wars,” “Firefly” and the Iron Man franchise, AR has moved out of fiction and into our pockets. Already a prominent feature in many extant smartphone apps, AR is also rapidly growing in fields ranging from art to medicine, commerce, defense and entertainment.
In a modern-day incarnation of (previously) futuristic Star Trek medical scans, AR can give doctors information on a patient’s blood pressure or organs, and may soon be widely used as an exceptionally powerful diagnosis tool.
Combat AR, on the other hand, provides information about a soldier’s surroundings in the field, such as the location of enemies or obstacles—the military, a pioneer of AR, is already testing such technology.
In a short video that includes the caption, “The future is about seeing more,” BMW showcases a pair of chunky glasses that guide the wearer through repairs on a car engine.
Programs like VividAR allow shoppers to insert furniture into their living rooms to see how a purchase might fit into their homes.
And IBM recently unveiled an app that scans grocery store aisles, merging product images with information on nutrition, pricing, daily discounts and reviews. The app can be specifically tailored to identify items, such as low cost or high protein, that best fit the user’s needs.
In all of these cases, AR acts as a fast-paced, interactive, real-time compiler of data that was previously only available through intermediary steps such as looking up an engine’s serial number or scanning a product barcode. The benefits of this technology are endless; the only boundaries are our imagination. Still, AR is an inherently invasive technology, and while “invasive” doesn’t automatically denote “bad,” it’s essential to be aware that information can be overlaid onto us as easily as we can overlay information onto grocery store produce aisle.
A limited example of this potentially troubling facet of AR is the acrossair browser, a free app available to iPhone and iPad users that allows an individual to find anything from local cinemas to nearby bars. While you can get the same thing from any GPS mapping program, other features of the app—such as the ability to overlay locally posted Tweets onto your phone or tablet’s video image—might cause you to raise your eyebrows.
This is where the availability and use of AR drifts into an uncomfortable realm. Most people aren’t aware that their Tweets are automatically stamped with the location of their posting, and might not enjoy the prospect of a random stranger walking through, say, Pendelton Atrium and reading about their nap on a couch, their thoughts on a class or their frustration with a sociology assignment.
It’s easy to conceive of the many invasive applications of AR. Imagine an app that scans a room and overlays the details of individuals’ ages, likes and political and religious views, all neatly extracted from poorly protected social networking sites. Such an app goes only a little further from the Twitter-AR mashup. If you aren’t rigorous about your privacy settings, you could easily be scanned and quantified by a nearby stranger operating an AR app.
Philosophers are fond of arguing over the amorality of technology; many believe that assigning morality to technology is impossible, and that only its use in conjunction with humans can be judged. While checking the growth of personally invasive AR systems without also limiting other uses of the technology would be nearly impossible, we shouldn’t allow our qualms about information sharing—especially in this day and age—to subdue our development of potentially wondrous AR applications. AR technologies are ever more vast and varied, and their implications reach far beyond restaurant-locating, social-networking or amateurish invasions of privacy.