Imagine walking down a suburban street called, “Augmented Reality Lane”.
Looking around, you notice that people are swiping, tapping and scrolling in mid-air as if they were interacting with a virtual screen. But, nothing is in front of them…
What is this world you may ask?
It is a world where our traditional perceptions of the ‘real’ have become a thing of the past. People no longer look down to their smartphone screens as a gateway into the online realm, but rather, they look out into the vast sea of augmented reality.
What is Augmented Reality (AR)?
Augmented reality (AR) attempts to merge the offline and online worlds together through digital seamless integration (Pesce, 2017). This is achieved by superimposing virtual objects, tokens and filters on top of the real world (Rauschnabel, Rossman & tom Diech, 2017). By exploiting the affordances of digital technology, it distorts our spatial and cognitive awareness in a way that is automatic, physical and temporally accurate (Schmalsteig & Höllerer, 2016).
So, how did it all start?
Rather than solely focusing on the introduction and evolution of different types of AR technology, I thought it would be important to discuss the social and cultural motivations that emerged behind AR’s introduction into communication media and information management.
Early online technologies – like websites – facilitated a unidirectional approach towards communication (Rauschnabel & Brem, 2015). Users were seen as ‘passive consumers’, who only consumed content that was created and published online (Rauschnabel & Brem, 2015).
How did this affect how people perceived the online world, you may ask?
Think of it as a domino effect, where:
- First, a significant proportion of the world’s information became trapped within the abstract web pages, databases and algorithms of the internet (Schmalsteig & Höllerer, 2016; Rauschnabel & Brem, 2015).
- Second, a noticeable separation between the offline and online realms started to form (Schmalstieg & Höllerer, 2016).
- This then developed a specific conception. Jurgenson (2011) refers to this outlook as “digital dualism” – the belief that the real world is untethered to the synthetic world.
AR “Then” and “Now”
While some victims fell into the hands of the digital dualism mentality, others also contested it.
Specifically, Jurgenson (2012) argued that digital dualism is a fallacy. If one were to see the online and offline worlds as a zero-sum game, it would lead to the development of a significantly unproductive world – especially given the increased speed at which the world’s access to data is being replicated, multiplied and spread.
So, what did people – who opposed digital dualism – do as a response to this?
Many users saw the practical potential new forms of digital technology had in making communications media and information management more efficient. AR was one of them.
For example, the term AR first appeared in the work of Caudell and Mizell (1992). By considering the complex process of manufacturing modern airliners, Caudell and Mizell (1992, p. 660) wanted to design “see-thru virtual reality goggles” for the factory worker. These wearable devices augmented the worker’s vision with technically accurate, useful and dynamically changing information (Caudell & Mizell, 1992).
However, a VR/AR device had already been created well before this. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland created the first head-mounted optical see-through device that could project simple 3D models into real life (Olshannikova, Ometov, Koucheryavy & Olsson, 2015).
Several years following this, it was clear that a trend had developed, where different configurations of practical AR technology were introduced. For instance, in 1994 State et al. (as cited in Schmalstieg & Höllerer, 2016) created an AR application, which allowed a physician to observe an augmented projection of a foetus within a pregnant patient.
From this, the conception of ‘online OR offline’ slowly transformed into ‘online AND offline’ – where the synthetic world was starting to be seen as an extension to the real.
Mobile Social Web
The transition from static devices to mobile devices – like laptops and smartphones – has increased the potential for AR to be available to the masses, rather than for practical applications like discussed previously.
For example, in Facebook’s 2017 Keynote, Mark Zuckerberg – founder of Facebook – identified different manifestations of AR already available to the ordinary mobile media user. Things like navigation apps – such as Google Maps – can be used, where information is augmented on top of real streets to show directions.
This illustrates how society is moving closer to Coleman’s (2011, p. 20) concept of “x-reality” – that is, where “networked media has integrated into daily life… where there is an interlacing of virtual and real experience” occurring.
How has Facebook gained significant dominance over the AR field?
Many large tech companies – like Facebook, Google and Apple – have made significant investments in AR technology.
Expertise in VR/AR
In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR – a leading VR company who has prospered within the gaming industry. By exploiting Oculus’ previous expertise in VR, Facebook plans to extend its capabilities to develop a new social and communications platform – one that is more dynamic, interactive and community-based (Facebook, 2014).
For instance, Facebook Spaces launched in 2017, where users can use the Oculus goggles to socialise with their friends as if they were right next to them.
Facebook as an unavoidable, immaterial commons
Pesce (2017) highlights how Facebook plays a significant role in social discourse. With its family of apps – Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp – coupled with the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology, the company has become a natural monopoly. By making it extremely difficult for a user to create a community outside the application, this network effect has made the term “Facebook” synonymous with the concept of the “commons” (Pesce, 2017)
Who benefits from AR?
Facebook is a major advertising agency.
Many companies of consumer goods and services look to Facebook as a means to provide them with advertising tools to increase the exposure of their products and brand (Gazzard, 2011).
A recent advertising tool that Facebook has tested in 2017 is AR ads in US users’ newsfeeds. Instead of seeing an advertisement online, and then having to physically walk into the store to try the product on, this new feature allows users to try on products – instantaneously, at the convenience of their own home – through the use of digital filters.
Not only does this give the business added publicity, but the specific metrics and data collected from these AR advertisements are valuable. For instance, Michael Kors can record the digital measurements of its consumer’s faces when they try on the augmented sunglasses, which then can be used for future product development.
Who does not?
Distorting perceptions of reality
AR has started to complicate the way users perceive reality (Pesce, 2017).
This introduces the question: what happens if the real world was completely augmented?
An extreme case of reality distortion can be seen in Keiichi Matsuda’s (2010) video. The video provides a glimpse into a dystopian future, where AR and media have saturated into all parts of everyday life – even in the home.
A significant message communicated in the video is the threat of “virtual clutter” (Adcock, 2018). As more virtual information becomes augmented, a person’s field of vision will be bombarded with unnecessary advertisements. Therefore, while businesses reaped the benefits of AR in a commercial sense, users are left with the impossible task of avoiding the growing ubiquity of augmented information and advertisement overload.
Digital Rights – Surveillance and Privacy
To accurately and realistically superimpose virtual markers onto the real world, AR systems need to be able to scan the world continuously. From this, personal, valuable and profitable streams of data are gathered from even the most mundane, human experiences (Pesce, 2017). For example, like the places people go.
Most social media businesses run under a “freedium” model, meaning that by using the app, users have unknowingly agreed to pay for the cost of using the app, with their “personal information” rather than money (Rauschnabel et al., 2017, p. 280).
So, who regulates this unchartered domain? Who has access to what data? How can users control or have a say in data management?
Recently, late September 2018, Facebook suffered a severe security breach where valuable and private consumer information was taken from 50 million users. While this does not explicitly link to AR data collection, this accident alludes to how the augmentation of reality may make users even more susceptible to privacy and security breaches, especially if their most mundane human interactions and data are being collected within an oligopolistic market.
For example, in Matsuda’s (2016) video, after being overwhelmed with spammers, Juliana Restrepo has her biometric information stolen from a hacker. She is forced to restart her whole life – with no personal identifiers, money or social connections to get her back to where she was before.
It has become clear that blending the online and offline world together has its benefits. Businesses will thrive as they begin to exploit AR as advertising tools and data collectors. Alternatively, as AR become increasingly omnipresent we will be blinded by virtual clutter. As a result of this, we have become more vulnerable to digital security, privacy and right breaches.
It is important to acknowledge that there are many more benefits and costs that can be identified. However, given the current capitalist concerns in relation to the introduction of new technology – like AR – and its commercial potential, I thought it would be interesting to point out these specific benefits and costs.
So, the final question I will present to you all is:
“Considering the severity of the costs presented, are we able to eventually overcome them? How are we going to do that in a rapidly changing and advancing world of augmented/X-reality?”
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