Augmented Reality, book review: Exploring the attractive and alarming potential of AR

Looking at the politics rather than just the technology of ‘the next big thing’, this book tries to ask who has the right to annotate the world.

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Augmented Reality • By Marc Pesce • Polity Press • 168 pages • ISBN 9781509540945 • £14.99 / $17 

Virtual reality (VR) has a long history, with many false starts and retrenchments, from the Nintendo Power Glove to Second Life to Magic Leap. Augmented reality (AR) actually goes even further back, to Ivan Sutherland's 1968 head-mounted display, nicknamed the Sword of Damocles because of the way it hung from ceiling rigging, although it was Pokémon Go that made AR a mainstream reality -- at least for a time. 

That collision of technology with the physical world can be entertaining and inspiring, but it raises some major questions about who is building the interface between the physical and digital worlds, and who will get to control AR's annotations and overlays. In Augmented Reality, Mark Pesce, co-architect of VRML (the Virtual Reality Markup Language that was meant to bring VR to the web), starts his look at the emergence and potential impact of AR with the night when so many Pokémon Go players congregated in a small park in Sydney that the police were called -- because the digital world was compromising the physical space. 

The delightful, magical and overwhelming -- and completely imaginary -- experience of wearing smart glasses (which he nicknames 'mirrorshades') for the first time that closes the book might have made a better introduction, because it vividly conveys the attractive and alarming potential of AR rather than sounding like an old news story you half remember. The same technology that wants to explain the world to you also knows everything about what you do, where you go and what you pay attention to. Mining and controlling that experience could be very lucrative, and potentially very dystopian. 

SEE: Magic Leap 1 augmented reality headset: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic download)

Before Pesce makes either the potential or the peril clear, there's a potted history of VR and AR in which he picks KinectHoloLensGoogle Cardboard and Apple's TrueDepth iPhone camera as pivotal moments in bringing the technology to the mainstream. He then goes back to history: Sutherland's head-mounted display, Engelbart's 'mother of all demos' that gave us the mouse, copy-and-paste and video conferencing, Norbert Wiener's cyberneticsLicklider's original idea of digitizing the world so computers can help us with it, and how Google Earth delivered at least some of Buckminster Fuller's World Game

World-changing potential

AR draws on some of the earliest ideas in computing, and Pesce argues that it's poised to change the world even more drastically, with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft potentially gaining control over reality. 

The author's prejudices sit a little oddly at times: the only products with comparable world-changing potential to Engelbart's demo, he feels, are the Macintosh, the iPhone and HoloLens -- but he dismisses the company that put a computer on every desktop as a stodgy business software firm that's not expected to have any grand visions. And is something that looks like a sleek TV wrapped around your head really doing more to hide surveillance in plain sight more than the tiny red LED on Google Glass

The lengthy discussion of the way we're all glued to phone screens, driven by positive reinforcement, 'stickiness', how much Google knows about the minutiae of your life, and the network effects of Facebook's monitoring and manipulation of our emotions doesn't seem, at first, to have much to do with AR. But every device will want that same addictive enablement, Pesce suggests -- and AR will be the screen you can't look away from, bringing synthetic addictions as well as omniscience to the real world. 

This does assume that 'mirrorshades' will work perfectly in just a few years, and some of the still-significant design issues are handwaved aside. 

Pesce's concerns about who will create, publish and control the metadata that will annotate the world for us require another diversion into history -- this time exploring the web and search engines. There's so much repetition and establishing well-known technology history that it leaves less space to explore the implications: it would have been interesting to look at the military surveillance of civilian spaces that Palmer Luckey's new company aims to offer as a development of VR for entertainment. And when we get into the meat of the discussion about how we will have to trust technology -- and technology providers -- to filter the cacophony of that metadata, the writing becomes unfortunately dense. 

It's certainly important to think about the way AR will guide us through the world, and whether that will shape our behaviours, actions and thoughts like rats hunting cheese through an AR maze. We very much like the idea that the augmented world will need the equivalent of DNS and ICANN to allow some independent control of who can write what and where.

Digital graffiti

It matters enormously if a company like Facebook claims the right to let its users scribble whatever they want on the virtual view of physical places and businesses, whether that's a sponsored artwork in a public park or offensive slogans on a synagogue. There's sadly little discussion of the harassment that already goes on in virtual reality though. The idea of AR curating reality is explained with reference to an upcoming Ryan Reynolds movie, Free Guy; but the postponed release means we won't be familiar with the way it overlays AR on the world. 

Pesce tries to lead a presumably mainstream audience to consider this nightmare surveillance gently and with enthusiasm for all the geeky technology that creates it. But that mainstream audience may find the discussion heavy going, with sentences like the "narcissistic injuries of the world awakened by its locative metadata will be continual as the world speaks for itself and against our needs." (All that metadata is going to make AR less than a perfect servant.) 

Alternately passionate and dry, poetic and plodding, this is a curiously frustrating yet fascinating book on a threat that may not be as imminent as the author fears, but that should certainly be on your radar.

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