Can you be trusted to design your own reality?
Immersed in the Digital World
Augmented Reality technology is all about customizing the world around us. Through video-enabled smartphone and tablet apps, and soon directly through eyewear, it overlays digital data over our perception of the physical world. The virtual world gets layered directly on top of the real one.
A key buzzword within the AR industry is "immersive." Immersiveness is a measure of how seamless the integration is between virtual and physical data. The more immersive a user's experience (or "UX") is, the less the user consciously perceives the augmented content as being separate from, or inferior in quality or value to, what he sees with his naked eye.
For designers of almost any AR app, the more immersive an app is, the better. In a fully immersive environment, a user perceives the virtual data as being equivalent to, and indistinguishable from, his physical surroundings--in other words, just another part of the landscape. The concept video "Domestic Robocop" gives one vision of what this reality might look like:
Just Around the Corner
Of course, no AR company is currently in a position to achieve complete immersion. Hardware limitations make that impossible. As engrossing and useful as the display on a monitor, smartphone, or tablet screen is, it only augments one small rectangle in your field of view, and only as long as you hold the device up in front of you. Looking away from the screen doesn't take much effort. Even the best AR app is no more immersive than a really good movie would be.
But what about in the not-too-distant future, when AR-capable eyewear is commonplace, and AR content is plentiful? At that point, it will be possible for a user to become totally "immersed" in a digitally enhanced view of the world. Personally, I'd love to have that option. That's when AR as a medium will finally realize its potential. Walking directions that I can actually walk on, virtual FAQ buttons on physical buildings, and floating boxes reminding me of people's names are experiences that I can't wait to have.
Our Addiction-Prone Society
If recent experience with consumer technologies has taught as anything as a society, however, it's that the more engrossing a technology is, the more likely it is that a certain segment of the population is going to develop an unhealthy fixation with it. Whether you call it "addiction" (a diagnostic term that gets thrown around far too often, but sure makes for catchy headlines) or simply a bad habit, the fact is that people love to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds to escape the doldrums and difficulties of real life. And fully immersive AR will be orders of magnitude more engaging and attractive than even the best of today's digital content.
We see this type of behavior everywhere today. Gamers will sit in front of their consoles playing massively multiplayer online games for hours and days on end, to the point that just last week someone died from a blot clot after sitting too long playing Halo 3 on Xbox. I've personally seen people dedicate the majority of their non-working hours to online role-playing games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, a phenomenon that has ruined plenty of lives. And there were portions of my college years where the same fate could have befallen me while playing the computer strategy game Civilization--although the internet connectivity of newer games adds a social element that draws players in even further. Not that any of these games are bad in and of themselves. Rather, they're so good--so immersive--that players with poor self-discipline can easily get sucked into playing them longer than they should.
Of course, the same technology that makes these games possible also makes it orders of magnitude easier to access other habit-forming content, such as porn and gambling.
The AR medium will make all of these experiences more immersive and compelling. For example, the story on "Gaming Addiction" linked to the image above contains an ad for "the Peregrine," a wearable glove that replaces the video game controller and proclaims itself to be an "interface like no other." Accessories like that, and the explosive growth of proto-AR gaming systems like the Wii, Kinect, and Nintendo 3DS, demonstrate that AR is the future of digital gaming. And that is because of the unprecedented degree to which these systems allow players to physically immerse themselves in the game world. Likewise, AR (and Kinect) porn and gambling applications are already on their way.
Augmentation or Self-Aggrandizement?
What got me thinking on this topic was an offhand comment by Brendan Scully of Metaio during his presentation at the ARE2011 Conference. Toward the end of a very thoughtful panel discussion on the challenges of designing AR user experiences, Brendan said, "I certainly wouldn't trust myself to design my own UX."
This reminded me of some of the cautionary tales that pop culture has already given us about the drawbacks of having complete control over our surroundings. Star Trek: The Next Generation did this frequently (sometimes to a fault) via the "Holodeck," a holographic room capable of replicating any environment and character imaginable.
In the episode "Hollow Pursuits" (and later episodes), the socially inept character Reginald Barclay literally becomes addicted to living in the artificial worlds he creates there--complete with racier versions of his real-life female acquaintances and diminutive parodies of the men that intimidate him.
Then there's the classic virtual reality tale "Lawnmower Man," in which the title character conquers an artificial world and declares, "I am God here!"
The special effects in these shows may be dated, but their message is timeless: the more control we gain over their personal environments and surroundings, the more those surroundings will tend to reflect our own narcissism.
It seems inevitable that at least some AR users will demonstrate the same tendencies, to varying degrees. For most people, AR will probably be a lot like text messaging or Facebook are today--a technological convenience that many people may actually spend too much time with and joke about being "addicted" to, but that leads to few actual cases of bona fide dependence.
But even if it doesn't amount to "addiction," the potential for unhealthy behavior through AR will always be present to some degree. Even today, for example, a jilted lover could use an AR app to display an ex-boyfriend's or ex-girlfriend's face at the physical location of every past date--reinforcing a vicious cycle of negative emotions. Pornographic content--already ubiquitous and responsible for an array of unhealthy behavior--can be displayed anywhere in ways that standard, two-dimensional monitors won't be able to match.
As AR hardware and capabilities mature beyond today's comparatively simplistic communication technologies into a more immersive environment, the potential for abuse will grow accordingly. To those who become accustomed to living in a "Domestic Robocop"-type world, non-augmented reality may start to seem unbearably mundane by comparison. At that point, we could very well see a number of real-world "Reginald Barclays."
Will government or industry step in to regulate AR content and head off some of these consequences? Perhaps. Although governments have more or less lost the ability to regulate violent content, age restrictions on prurient material remain enforceable, and would certainly be applied in this new medium. Crackdowns on illegal gambling programs may well follow. And just as we see counselors specializing in addictions to such content today, we're likely to see similar services available for those who lose themselves in their own augmented worlds.
Reasons for Optimism
Just because AR will be immersive doesn't automatically make it addictive or dangerous. No matter how convincing its digital content is, AR is, by definition, the intersection between that data and the real, physical world. The most exciting possibilities for immersing oneself in AR are also the same features that would take users outdoors. Therefore, augmented content may never have the same tendency to isolate users into online communities and separate them from physical interaction the way that console-based gaming systems with monitor-dependent displays do today. Proto-AR systems like the Wii and Kinect are already heralded as getting gamers off the couch; AR could be the killer app for getting them outside and into the world around them.
Counselors, meanwhile, need not wait for AR-addled patients to start taking the technology seriously. Today's innovators are already devising ways that AR can be used to counsel patients. Helen Papagiannis, for example, has designed the world's first AR Pop-Up book for the iPad 2. It's designed to let users interact with virtual representations of their phobias--spiders, for example--in a visually convincing, but perfectly safe, way.
In sum, then, AR as a technology will be interesting and powerful medium, with the ability to do both good and harm to individual psyches and society as a whole. It will offer ability to psychologically immerse users in artificial content to a degree unmatched by other technologies. But that ability itself is ethically neutral. How it impacts us--and how much it becomes incumbent on others to regulate our use of it--will depend on what we choose to do with it.