In the blockbuster movie trilogy “The Matrix,” the computer world and the real world are merged in the main character, Neo. Just as he learns to project his human consciousness into the computer construct that is the Matrix, his nemesis, Agent Smith, learns to project his computer consciousness into a human mind. The end result is a series of explosive, action-packed thrillers that also contains a surprising amount of depth and philosophy.
While we don’t need to worry about sentinels or the nefariously complex creations of The Architect just yet, we can already see the beginnings of a blended world made up of both the real and the virtual in a technology called augmented reality.
Simply put, augmented reality — AR for short — is a type of virtual reality that duplicates the real world in a computer environment and then overlays it with enhanced sensory perception of that reality. If this seems far-fetched, perhaps some examples would help simplify things. Think about the last time you watched a football broadcast on TV – remember the ever-present first down line? That’s a graphical overlay on the television broadcast that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. The combined product you saw on TV was a virtual reality that duplicated the real world…but with some added visual enhancement. Your surround sound home theater system delivers an auditory version of the same concept. If you think about it, there are lots of examples around us every day, even on something as small as a smart phone. In fact, many apps that harness the effectiveness of augmented reality already exist. There are a number of apps that let you wave your phone around the night sky to see the locations of the stars and planets. There are apps that overlay the names and ratings of restaurants as you walk down a city street. Apps can overlay distance or light measurements for construction or photography, put an arrow on your screen to indicate where you parked your car, or even show you where to point your satellite dish. Google Glass is one of the first commercially available augmented reality devices on the market for consumers, and despite its drawbacks is a signal of much more to come. Augmented reality is already here, and you probably already use it in one form or another.
The exciting — and scary — thing about it is that AR is only going to get more effective. The latest generation of gaming systems are pioneering the way. For example, take a look at this concept video of a Microsoft Xbox converting the entire room into the player’s screen:
Entertainment seems to be a big early adopter of AR technology, but there are many other industries experimenting with it, as well, from commerce to military to medical to science. This technology can be so effective in part because of how real it is – if real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. As the video above demonstrates, even the most basic AR can fool the brain rather easily. Thus, in the coming years, as software becomes more sophisticated and hardware becomes even more powerful, AR technology will continue to become more effective and pervasive. It will shrink in both size and cost until it becomes commonplace and therefore almost invisible, much like our smart phones are to us now. At some point it may actually get a little bit tricky to determine what is real and what isn’t. While that will certainly make for some incredible entertainment and life improvements, it is not something to venture into blindly or foolishly. Any time the real world and a virtual world are indistinguishable, there is great potential for harm. We must take care to shepherd this fantastic new technology along a path that is enjoyable, helpful, ethical, and safe.
After all, there is no spoon.