At its core, augmented reality (AR) and the Meta-verse are media technologies that aim to present content in the most natural form possible — by seamlessly integrating simulated sights, sounds, and even feelings into our perception of the real world around us.
This means AR, more than any form of media to date, has the potential to alter our sense of reality, distorting how we interpret our direct daily experiences.
In an augmented world, simply walking down the street will become a wild amalgamation of the physical and the virtual, merged so convincingly that the boundaries will disappear in our minds.
Our surroundings will become filled with persons, places, objects, and activities that don’t actually exist, and yet they will seem deeply authentic to us.
This early system employed a million dollars’ worth of equipment, requiring users to climb into a large motor-driven exoskeleton and peer into a makeshift vision system that hung from the ceiling, all while they performed manual tasks in the real world, such as inserting pegs into holes of different sizes.
At the same time, virtual objects were merged into their perception of the real workspace, the goal being to assist users as they perform the complex task.
But even more exciting was the reaction of the human subjects after they tried that very first version of AR.
Everyone climbed out of the system with big smiles and told me without prompting how remarkable the experience was — not because it boosted their performance but because it was magical to interact with virtual objects that felt like genuine additions to the physical world.
I was convinced that this technology would eventually be everywhere, splashing techno-magic onto the world around us, impacting every domain from business and commerce to gaming and entertainment.
Now, 30 years later, I am more convinced than ever that augmented reality will become central to all aspects of life, touching everything from how we work and play to how we communicate with each other.
In fact, I am convinced that it will happen this decade — and yes, it will be magical.
But at the same time, I am very concerned about the negative consequences, and it is not because I worry about bad actors hacking the technology or otherwise hijacking our good intentions.
No, I am concerned about the legitimate uses of AR by the powerful platform providers that will control the infrastructure.
Let’s face it: We find ourselves in a society where countless layers of technology exist between each of us and our daily lives, moderating our access to news and information.
Mediating our relationships with friends and family, filtering our impressions of products and services, and even influencing our acceptance of basic facts.
We now live mediated lives, all of us depending more and more on the corporations that provide and maintain the intervening layers. And when those layers are used to manipulate us, the industry does not view it as misuse but as marketing.
And this is not just being used to peddle products but to disseminate untruths and promote social division. The fact is, we now live in dangerous times, and AR has the potential to amplify the dangers to levels we have never seen.
Imagine walking down the street in your hometown, casually glancing at people you pass on the sidewalk. It is much like today, except floating over the heads of every person you see are big glowing bubbles of information.
Now imagine that third parties can inject their own content, possibly as a paid filter layer that only certain people can see.
And they use that layer to tag individuals with bold flashing words like “Alcoholic” or “Immigrant” or “Atheist” or “Racist” or even less charged words like “Democrat” or “Republican.”
Those who are tagged may not even know that others can see them that way. The virtual overlays could easily be designed to amplify political division, ostracize certain groups, even drive hatred and mistrust.
Will this really make the world a better place? Or will it take the polarized and confrontational culture that has emerged online and spray it across the real world?
With AR, personal information will follow us everywhere, exposing our behaviors and reducing our privacy. Will this make the world a better place? I don’t think so, and yet this is where we are headed.
Over the last decade, the abuse of media technologies has made us all vulnerable to distortions and misinformation, from fake news and deep fakes to botnets and troll farms.
These dangers are insidious, but at least we can turn off our phones or step away from our screens and have authentic real-world experiences, face-to-face, that aren’t filtered through corporate databases or manipulated by intelligent algorithms.
With the rise of AR, this last bastion of reliable reality could completely disappear. And when that happens, it will only exacerbate the social divisions that threaten us.
And no, you won’t just take off your AR glasses or pop out your contacts to avoid these problems. Why not? Because faster than any of us can imagine, we will become thoroughly dependent on the virtual layers of information projected all around us.
It will feel no more optional than internet access feels optional today. You won’t unplug your AR system because doing so will make important aspects of your surroundings inaccessible to you, putting you at a disadvantage socially, economically, and intellectually.
The fact is, the technologies we adopt in the name of convenience rarely remain optional — not when they are integrated into our lives as broadly as AR will be.
AR will make us even more dependent on the insidious layers of technology that mediate our lives and the power brokers that control those layers.
This will leave us increasingly susceptible to manipulations and distortions by those who can afford to pull the strings.
Big Think / ABC Flash Point News 2021.