Augmented Reality and Our Potential Cyborg Future

11/05/2015 - 15:42

Edwin Henry

Virtual reality is coming, even if it has seemingly been on the brink of breaking out over the last few decades. Augmented reality however has been on the horizon for only the last few years and could have a more meaningful impact to directly enhancing the current world we inhabit.

For one, the design protocol makes augmented reality much easier to ‘pull off’ compared to virtual reality. You don’t have to block out the entire world and simulate your own. AR adds a layer on your current reality with context, features, data, whimsical characters, zombies, etc. all while processing your surroundings to give a convincing effect to the user.

With virtual reality, you have to first mask off the entire world by blocking vision, sound, and eventually, sense of smell and touch. This gets complicated when you factor in how to replace the lost information, especially in cases where it isn’t easy to replace: like your vestibular system for balancing. A common complaint is the nausea people get from playing with virtual reality systems.

AR has been played within a handful of consumer realms, but never ‘seriously’ like VR. Its capabilities have been featured by Google in its currently on-hold Google Glass experiment. It was showcased through a Nintendo 3DS systems and teased occasionally with smartphone apps and implementation. However, there has never been anything substantial, except for translation features and more promises of things on the horizon.

Where can it go? What is the end game for augmented reality? Is it like MIT's 'SixthSense' do-it-yourself device? A pico projector combined with a gesture-based interface that looks great on paper, but most likely does not live up to its Minority Report style gestures.

Could it be something more like Google’s sign translation feature you can access with a smartphone. You can simply point the camera at a sign and the words in whatever language you cannot read will be “magically” replaced with your native tongue. This is less “combing through a translation dictionary” and more “wow the future is right this frickin’ second.”

Dr. Evil

(c)1997 New Line Cinema

Then, there are neat things like UCLA’s Augmented Reality sandbox that displays topographical and colors over sand, and dynamically changes as users sculpt and “get their hands dirty.” Peaks form shadows as vegetation gets scarce, and deep valleys and ditches are suddenly filled with water. The effect is stunning.

Pokemon will insert itself into your reality soon; making my grade-school dreams come true. When I was a kid, my friends and I thought of making robotic versions of the pocket monsters. Using AR to simulate Pokemon essentially bridges that gap in a way that makes… a lot more sense than a 7-year-old’s half-baked idea. Mobile devices will be integral for developing easier to access augmented reality applications, especially since they don’t require huge buy-ins like virtual reality headsets.

Heads up displays like those that fighter jet pilots use can add useful information such as altitude and distance lines to a scene that might otherwise appear flat, like a distant blue sky.

The Magic Leap device, headset, hardware or whatever they continually tease on the internet is drawing much interest. As of the writing of this article, their homepage shows a short video of a school gymnasium full of kids being wowed by a virtual whale jumping out of the floor like water before vanishing back out of sight. It’s an incredible demo, especially with the kids’ reactions alongside. The Google backed venture is potentially raising $1 billion from Alibaba and some places are calling it “the next Google Glass” with both the positive and negative connotation that comes with that.

With an augmented world, how does this tie into our already super-connected lives? After all, we’re all essentially cyborgs now.

As Amber Case says, she always wanted to create wormholes since she was a kid and her dad showed her the shortest distance between point A and B wasn’t a straight line, but a folded one. She realized as she grew up that we were already doing it. Our more-and-more connected world has shrunk the globe down to a size where you can whisper something, and it can be heard on the other side of the world.

Because of the ubiquity of our phones and cheaper mobile devices, augmented reality has the potential to be much more widespread in its impact than virtual reality. As with VR, time will tell how AR will be adopted by not only developers, but consumers, too.

This technology could one day even be adapted into internet connected contacts we might wear, giving us an entirely different sense of what reality is.