Reality Plus™!

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Remember virtual reality? Maybe you don't. It was all the rage when Nirvana were a hot new band. Ask your grandpa, kids.

Today, entry level computers have 3D rendering power for which VR engineers in 1991 would've sold their childrens' organs. Well, someone's childrens' organs. But actual 3D displays are still highly specialised products.

Maybe we'll all be using 3D screens in a few more years, but I wouldn't bet on it. The problem is that 3D monitors aren't actually all that useful.

The killer app for stereoscopic displays, you see, is not just showing you an image with depth. It's merging that image with the real world.

"Augmented Reality" (AR) is what you get when computer graphics are overlaid on your vision according to what you're looking at. We're not talking a mere heads-up display of your pocket computer's screen; we're talking line-of-sight-sensitive information, lined up with the contents of the actual world.

AR's been a sci-fi staple for some time. The most popular book about it is probably William Gibson's Virtual Light, first published 1993. Neal Stephenson had AR-enhanced "gargoyles" in Snow Crash; that was 1992.

AR isn't like FTL travel and teleporters, though. You're going to be able to buy it soon enough. Improved wearable displays, faster wearable computers, cheaper position sensors, more pervasive wireless data networks and high-accuracy GPS mean AR as a useful, or at least fun, consumer product is coming over the horizon.

That sainted lunatic Professor Steve Mann has been doing AR for years. He used to walk around all day looking like Borg v0.002beta, but now he's got his "reality mediator" down to the size of a pair of Elvis shades. So instead of looking like a mad professor carrying his laboratory with him, he now just looks like a dork. Early consumer AR systems probably won't be a lot better, but the age of the stylish cyberpunk nonetheless approacheth.

On the technical side, AR For The Rest Of Us requires integration with navigation systems, commercial communication networks (or at least widely distributed amateur ones), and scads of databases; all of that ain't happening tomorrow.

When it does, though, the nerd's-eye view of the world is going to change.

You know the stuff that cheaters in FPS games can do? Imagine having those kinds of abilities in real life. Minus the automatic headshots.

Where's the nearest kebab joint? Press a button or three on the chording keyboard on your belt, and giant arrows appear in the sky, pointing down at three possibilities, supplemented with estimated time-to-target. The arrows are colour coded according to the reviews other people have given the food, while eating it one-handed.

Needless to say, you can then set one result as a waypoint and get directions.

What's that building? Look at it, press buttons, get an info overlay that gives a quick list of the businesses inside. Drill down to a floor-by-floor view if you want.

Not the building you want? Wondering where that place with the dome, you know, with the lights, is?

Look through the buildings you can see, and through anything else you like, at overlaid views of everything your nav system knows about. With a time control, so you can see things that aren't there any more, or that haven't been built yet.

(Activating the magnify function by saying "Enhance!" and then listening to Deckard's-computer sound effects is optional.)

Going driving? Let your AR system highlight other vehicles (particularly including those elusive motorcycles), code them by threat-to-you, and warn you about stuff you can't see yet.

AR isn't going to be restricted to when you're out and about, of course. Early systems will only work when you're not.

Offices will have virtual displays all over the place, allowing people to walk through maps or charts or blueprints or whatever, make changes that only arbitrary subgroups of people can see, and do all the rest of that groupware stuff in a very playing-at-the-Lego-table way.

Social features, productive and otherwise, will be the big selling point for AR. Nobody expected SMS to be the social phenomenon (and gigantic money-maker) it turned out to be. The telecom giants aren't going to make that mistake again.

Just imagine the ability to scan for the location of people you know, or other nearby souls with similar interests to yours who've chosen to make themselves contactable (though, if they've got any sense, not automatically locatable). Impromptu conference calls between people, close or distant, with overlaid talking-head avatars floating in the air. The ability to add "objects" to the world that a group of your choosing can see, pointing out items of interest, the location of the party, or the place where you lost your wallet last week, your contact details, and the reward you're offering.

Or, heck, just freestyle virtual sculptures.

Games are part of the social thing, and there'll be lots of them. Human Pac-Man (also available in a lower tech version) is the best AR game prototype so far, but we won't be stuck with Arcade Classics for long.

Imagine collaborative games that let anyone walking down the street join in, or at least see what's happening. Commuter trains could become real on-rails shoot-em-ups, and lawsuits will probably result when unsuspecting passers-by find themselves being tagged with AR Bonkability Ratings by lunching nerds.

There can be as many views of the world as there are viewers, of course. Flick through 500 game channels, each of which overlays Sydney Harbour with a different yacht race, hover-tank battle or 150,000-person pool party.

People already play mental games to pass the time as they get from A to B. I'll bet you that something that can cause visible monsters to grab you if you step on a crack in the pavement is going to sell. Heck, that sort of thing's already a popular product; it just ain't legal.

It's not all rosy, of course. There are privacy and civility issues galore, and I don't even want to think about AR spam.

If that's the cost of being able to put the sum total of human knowledge on like a pair of sunglasses, though, count me in.

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