Future AR: Information Heaven or Advertising Hell?

Augmented Reality (AR) refers to the blending of digital media with real-world perception such that our experience or understanding of the world is variously enhanced or augmented. Typically, AR applications are delivered via smartphones or special viewing devices such as Google’s AR glasses (due to be released later this year).

Blending of digital and physical worlds is achieved via computer vision technology that extracts geometry from real-world scenes, and computer graphics software that adapts still or moving imagery to the extracted geometry, combining it with the user’s view.

The Star Walk AR astronomy app superimposes words and pictures on real views of the sky.

Nokia Live View is an AR browser that connects digital and physical worlds by overlaying points of interest (from a maps database) on a live camera view. As the view changes, so new place labels appear.

AR has found all sorts of useful, even life-saving, applications in medicine, industrial design, the military and other specialised fields; now the commercial, mass market potential of the technology is being vigorously explored and developed. One sector already well established is interactive print, where 3D digital pictures and animations integrated with books and magazines greatly extend the scope of conventional print:

The video below from New Scientist simulates how the world could look in a commercially augmented future, and it’s not pretty. Virtual labels swarm over real-world objects -- supposedly guiding the user’s actions -- whilst garish virtual adverts jostle for space on every visible surface.

In film and television the boundary between real and synthetic has already become so blurred that few can reliably tell the difference -- which is great for lovers of sci-fi fantasy, but not so great for lovers of documentary truth.

BBC nature documentarist Sir David Attenborough warned of the problem last year: “It’s not too difficult to use a computer to make a dead fish waggle its ears", he said, "... if you wanted to confuse the audience, you’ve got more ways than ever before.”

As in film and TV, the trend in AR apps is towards ever greater realism, and inevitably the clunky models of the past will be replaced by synthetic people, places, plants and animals so detailed, lifelike and reactive that we will easily mistake them for the real thing.

Compounding this confusion of real and unreal is the potential for malicious uses of the technology, as anticipated by New Scientist:

Some have already begun to use smartphone apps to tag "digital graffiti" onto the physical world… Some of these offerings are useful; others are aesthetic, trivial or personal. Many are angry, subversive or offensive. In other words, all the virtues and vices of the social web are being daubed onto the physical world, with interesting and challenging consequences...

Equally, an extremist could post slogans on a graveyard or government building, or a protester might decide to reveal the location of an animal-testing lab. Individuals are not immune – people could be digitally tagged without their knowledge. The tag could be a compliment. Equally possibly it could be an insult or embarrassing photo. Electing not to wear the glasses will be as effective as closing your eyes and wishing it would go away.

Negotiating our way through the rights and wrongs of this while protecting free speech, privacy and reputation will be tortuous.

Clearly, Augmented Reality can aid and inform whilst transforming daily experience. But the question is whether we want technology increasingly mediating our perceptions of the city, nature and the people we meet. Is there not a risk that we might lose the capacity to form our own judgements, or to perceive and appreciate the world as it is?