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Colliding worlds

December 11, 2007

An article in the new Economist describes the rapid advances being made in "augmented reality," which involves the "painting" of computer-generated text and images onto the physical world. Imagine, for instance, that the GPS navigator in your car didn't require you to look at a separate screen to see your intended route but instead used your windshield to superimpose the route on the actual roads you're driving. That's AR, and its applications are progressing and proliferating.

Surgeons, for instance, are beginning to use AR systems to paint images on the skin and organs of patients to direct their work. An amusement park in France is constructing a safari ride "that will be devoid of animals. Instead, passengers riding on a small train will look through hand-held AR binoculars that will superimpose frolicking 3-D virtual animals over the real decor." Manufacturers are using AR systems to see how well products and components match up to specifications.

As is so often the case with computing technologies, it's the military that's the real pioneer of AR. Army researchers believe, according to the Economist, that

AR could have an important role in disseminating tactical intelligence. Soldiers with head-mounted displays might, for example, read street names superimposed on the ground, follow colour-coded arrows for patrols or retreats, and see symbols indicating known or potential sniper nests, weapons caches and hiding places for booby-traps. The displays could also show the locations of friendly forces and levels of ammunition and other supplies, as in a video game.

Mark Livingston, head AR researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, says his team is developing “3-D ink” writing methods that will allow soldiers to paint virtual symbols or text onto the real world, so that other soldiers who arrive at the same spot later can see them.

You can foresee the commercial applications of such systems. Instead of writing messages to friends on their Facebook Walls, someday you'll be able to use your computer or mobile phone to write the messages on their actual walls (maybe with a Beacon ad thrown in). The world will become annotated, scrawled over. As the Economist says, "Why settle for reality when you can augment it?" It's the ultimate expression of the plastic surgery ethic.

Earlier today, I read about some guy who claims that, as the BBC summarized it, "the appeal of online virtual worlds such as Second Life is such that it may trigger an exodus of people seeking to 'disappear from reality.'" But that gets it wrong, I think. It assumes that the virtual and the real will remain separate places. What's really going to happen is that the real and the virtual will blur together, become indistinguishable, as more of our experience becomes computer-generated. Eventually, there won't be any reality to escape from.


Ironic that amongst all this futuristic hubbub is this quote:

"... the software will reduce the cost of constructing a typical medium-sized *coal-fired power plant* by more than $1m."

Now that's progress! I guess all those coal fired plants will be needed to power all those facebook walls...

Posted by: dubdub [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 01:22 AM

This idea of augmented reality is taken to the extreme by a book I just finished reading a few days ago - Rainbow Ends by Vernor Vinge.
It gives a lot of insight about the potential and possibilities of this technology, which I find very interesting.
This is a link to the boon on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rainbows-End-Novel-Foot-Future/dp/0312856849

Posted by: Tsahi Levent-Levi [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 01:35 AM

Great post, Nick. Your point was very insightful, just scrambled a lot of things on my mind. Thanks Tsahi for the book sugestion, too.

Posted by: pepicon [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 05:48 AM

The truth is that the use of the word "virtual" related to new technologies and the like is stupid from the beginning. Not only all of what is called virtual is of course part of reality (and represents artefact builded by somebody, ie work), but the use of this word would make you beleive that the "physical" world is reduced to its material aspect, when of course it is filled with symbols and signs.

The point is to name the things, using "virtual" for any new tech matter should become outdated, it is really gross in a sense

Posted by: an691 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 07:29 AM

an691, you're right, of course. The history of civilization is a history of reality augmentation. You might even argue that evolution is a reality-augmentation mechanism. Still, I think "virtual" is generally understood to mean "computer-generated," and that's something new which is worth considering in its own right. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 09:52 AM

Bleh. They're just rebranding the "virtual reality hype as "augmented reality".

That all could have been written back when "VR" was a big buzzword.

The technology isn't very good, and won't be very good for the near future. Nobody is going to disappear from real life any more than they do for books or TV.

That being said, "Hollow Pursuits" was a great episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, and worth any amount of warmed-over marketing and punditry (people who haven't seen the episode won't get this reference, but those who have, will).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 09:58 AM

Isn’t all this talk about virtual worlds just a much more definable move toward a life style that is increasingly dominated by ever more complicated technology. The measure of its meaningfulness must be our ability to enter into that world with a corresponding reach of consciousness!

“The appeal, he said, is not for those in a good job, but for those working low-paid, low-skill jobs. "Would you rather be a Starbucks worker or a starship captain?" he asked.”

It isn’t about people with low paying jobs as much as the weight that either does or doesn’t bear upon one in regard to ones personal or professional biography. Is a second life starship captain going to have a harder time paying the mortgage, or realizing his or her destiny than a starbucks worker who after all is still in the real world?

“As the images become larger and interactive controls more complex, the perception of "reality" increases.” It is still only a perception of reality, that’s why it’s called virtual reality. Has the advent of this new world changed the definition of reality? I think not!


Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 10:17 AM

Nick, thanks a lot for your answer, yes it's true that the meaning of the word has simply been twisted.

Reality augmentation since the beginning yes maybe, although one could say that the main reality is more linked to symbol and language than "matter" and everybody has a body, which accelerations won't ever be created by software.

But this use of virtual for everyhting computer or internet related is somehow a symptom of a certain "ambiant stupidity" for me, and I'm French and I think in French it is even worse than in English ! I thought it would disapear but looks like it doesn't, calling an image "virtual" because it has been designed using a computer for instance, and that it isn't a photography, is really somehow atrocious, after centuries of paintings ...

As if cartoon characters were not as much virtual because drown on papers.

And thanks for your blog, great one

Posted by: an691 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 10:47 AM

hmmm, I imagine the outrage those priests felt as Giotto was painting in perspective...
WHAT ? 3-D ?? Burn in hell !

Posted by: gianni [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 12:11 PM


lol, they must really have lost it with Fra Angelico then !! :)

By the way are you Italian ? If yes how is the usage of "virtual" in italian ?

It would be really interesting to have a kind of comparative study of this in different languages I think

Posted by: an691 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 12:35 PM

"He's more machine than man now ... twisted and evil."

Posted by: Tom Panelas [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 02:54 PM

I don't need the GPS (not geographically challenged, y'know) but I wouldn't mind a HUD with the relevant vehicle readings - speed, fuel etc. I don't see that we escape from reality by gathering information about it. As long as it's by choice - i.e. as much augmentation as I want, not what some software company wants me to have - then bring it on. Having glasses that held face recognition sensors linked to my contact list/CRM would be hugely advantageous for me, as I have little short-term memory. I can look at a face and think "I know I know you but..."; even being able to review my list unobtrusively would help to jog the defective particle of memory and link a name with a face.

Posted by: nzlemming [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2007 11:59 PM

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