The average person needs to use psychoactive drugs like LSD, Psilocybin, or Mescaline to experience a hallucinogenic event. In the future, all you’ll need is a pair of augmented reality glasses (and they’ll be totally legal).
What is augmented reality, anyway?
At a basic level, augmented reality (AR) is the use of technology to digitally modify or enhance your perception of the real world. This is not to be confused with virtual reality (VR), where the real world is replaced by a simulated world. With AR, we’ll see the world around us through different filters and layers rich with contextual information that will help us better navigate our world in real time and (arguably) enrich our reality.
Still confused? We don't blame you. AR can be a tricky thing to describe, especially since it's fundamentally a visual medium. Hopefully, the two videos below will give you some insight into AR’s future.
To start, let's take a look at a promotional video for Google Glass. While the device didn’t catch on among the public, this early version of AR technology is a good starting point for understanding how useful AR can become when navigating our daily lives.
This next video, or short film rather, is a fictional interpretation of what advanced AR technology will look like by the late 2030s to early 2040s. It does a good job of highlighting AR technology’s potential positive and negative effects on our future society.
How augmented reality works and why you’ll use it
Sadly, we're not going to delve into the nuts and bolts of exactly how AR technology works. If you'd like to learn more about that, please check the links at the bottom of this article. What we will discuss is what AR technology will look like to the everyday person and how they might use it.
In previous articles about the Internet of Things and wearables, as well as throughout our Future of Computers series, we discussed how the physical objects around us will become web-enabled, meaning they’ll begin producing and sharing data about their state and use over the web. We also mentioned how the tables and walls that surround us will gradually become covered by smart surfaces similar to today’s touchscreens, which will also project holograms you can interact with. It can be argued that both of these innovations are primitive forms of augmented reality because they superimpose a digital world over the physical world in a very tactile way.
The AR technology we're going to focus on is in the form of a wearable you’ll wear over your eyes. And perhaps one day even inside your eyes.
Like the wearable wristbands, we described in our last article, augmented reality glasses will allow you to interact with the web and control the objects and environments around you in an ever more seamless way. But unlike those wristbands, the web we’re used to experiencing through a screen will become superimposed on top of our normal vision.
Wearing AR glasses will improve eyesight beyond 20/20, they will allow us to see through walls, and they will allow us to browse the web as if looking at a screen floating in midair. As if we were wizards, these glasses will allow us to conjure up digital 3D laptops and keyboards with a blink of an eye; they will allow us to automatically translate written text and even sign language from the deaf; they will even show us virtual arrows (travel instructions) as we walk and drive to our daily appointments. These are just a few examples of AR’s many applications.
(Oh, and those wearable wristbands we spent an entire chapter describing in the last part of our Future of the Internet series? These AR glasses will make you see a digitalized 3D wristband every time you look down at your arm. There’s a catch, of course, and we’ll get to that at the end.)
How will augmented reality impact culture?
For obvious reasons, gaining a super-powered perception of reality is going to impact culture in a variety of ways.
In our personal lives, AR will impact the way we interact with both strangers and our loved ones.
- For example, if you’re at a networking event, your AR glasses (combined with your Virtual Assistant) will not only show the names of all the strangers around you above their heads, but it will also give you brief bios of each person, encouraging you to connect with those people who might help your career the most.
- As illustrated by the video above, when out on a date, you’ll see a variety of public information about your date that you can use for winning conversation starters.
- When your future son or daughter comes home from school, you'll see a virtual teacher’s note floating above their head notifying you that your child got a poor mark in his coding test and that you should talk with your child about it.
In professional settings, AR will have an equally profound impact on both your productivity and overall effectiveness.
- For example, if you’re talking to a potential client at a very important sales meeting, your AR glasses will project a summary of your communication with this person, as well as publicly reported intel about his company's performance and operations, which you can use to better pitch your product or service and make the sale.
- If you’re a safety inspector, you’ll be able to walk through your production plant, glance around at the various pipes and machines, and get performance stats for each item compared to the norm, allowing you to spot technical issues or dangers before they happen.
- If you’re a police officer who just stopped a speeding driver, looking at the driver’s license plate with AR glasses will prompt them to immediately project the person’s driver's license and applicable criminal record above his car, allowing you to make a more informed decision about how to approach this reckless driver.
Culturally, AR will have a striking impact on our collective consciousness and pop culture.
- Video games are a stand out example, with AR games allowing you to experience immersive environments on top of the real world around you, creating a sense of magical realism. Imagine games and apps where the people you see outdoors are made to look like zombies you need to escape, or a game of Bejeweled that covers the sky above you, or even a non-game app that lets you see jungle animals roaming the streets you walk by.
- Don’t have enough money for select types of furniture and home decorations? Not a problem with AR. You’ll be able to decorate your home and office with digital items that can only be seen and manipulated through your AR vision.
- Afraid of planes or don’t have the vacation days for exotic travel? With advanced AR, you’ll be able to visit distant locations virtually. (To be fair though, virtual reality will do this better, but we’ll get to that in the next chapter.)
- Feeling lonely? Well, combine your Virtual Assistant (VA) with AR, and you’ll have a virtual companion to keep you company at all times—kind of like an imaginary friend that you can actually see and engage with—at least when you’re wearing the glasses.
- Of course, given all these AR possibilities, it wouldn’t be a stretch to also see a stark rise in AR addiction, leading to serious reality disassociation episodes where AR users lose track of which reality is real and which isn’t. This condition will likely impact hardcore videogame players the most.
These are just some of the scenarios AR will make possible. At a higher level, many of the challenges AR will present are very similar to the challenges and criticisms placed upon smartphones in recent years.
For example, if executed poorly, AR could further degrade the quality of our interactions, isolating us inside our own digital bubbles. This danger will become more obvious when you consider that those who use an AR device when interacting with someone without an AR device will have a sizeable advantage over the less connected individual, an advantage that can be used for manipulative ends. In addition, big issues surrounding privacy will arise, much like we saw with Google Glass since people wearing AR glasses will essentially be walking video cameras recording everything they see.
The big business behind augmented reality
When it comes to the business behind AR technology, all indications point to it one day becoming a multi-trillion dollar industry. And why wouldn't it be? Applications around AR are numerous: From education and training to entertainment and advertising, to exercise and health care, and much more.
The companies that will benefit most from AR’s rise will be those involved with building the finished AR devices, supplying its components and sensors, and creating its software applications (especially AR social media). However, while the technology behind AR is developing quickly, there are forces at play that will likely delay its widespread adoption.
When will augmented reality become a reality?
When it comes to AR going fully mainstream, the sad reality is that it won't happen for quite some time. AR will definitely find some limited use in experimental advertising, future gaming consoles, as well as a few very practical applications in education and industry.
That said, there are a number of factors blocking AR’s widespread adoption, some technical and some cultural. Let’s take a look at the technical roadblocks first:
- First, for AR to truly take off among the masses, Internet connectivity must reach a high level of penetration in most population centers. There will be an enormous upsurge in web traffic, as AR devices will constantly be exchanging huge amounts of data with their surroundings to offer contextually relevant, real-time visual information to its users.
- Related to Internet connectivity is something called upstream bandwidth. Much of our Internet infrastructure was built to download data from the web. When it comes to uploading data to the web, our existing infrastructure is much slower. That's a problem for AR, because for it to work, not only does it need to constantly identify and communicate with the objects and people around it, it needs to share that data with the web to generate useful and contextual feedback the user will find useful.
- There's also the problem of latency: basically how fast AR will work. If there’s too much lag time between where your eyes glance and the visual data your device presents to you, not only will AR begin to feel like a hassle to use, but it may also cause headaches and dizziness.
- Finally, there's the matter of power. For many, frustration can turn near violent when smartphones die halfway through the day, especially when not actively used. For AR glasses to be useful, they need to function non-stop throughout the day.
Infrastructure and technical drawbacks aside, AR technology will also find a number of cultural hurdles that it will need to jump over to gain widespread acceptance.
- The first cultural roadblock against mainstream AR is the glasses themselves. The reality is most people don't actually enjoy wearing glasses 24/7. They might be comfortable wearing sunglasses briefly outside, but having to wear glasses (regardless of how fashionable they might become) will be a no-go for most users. That's why for AR technology to really take off, it needs to shrink to the size of contact lenses (similar to the video we saw earlier). While possible, the innovations needed for AR lenses to become a reality are still decades away.
- The next big hurdle will be that of privacy. We covered this earlier, but it's worth repeating: the privacy issues around using AR glasses or lenses will be substantial.
- The biggest cultural hurdle ahead of AR will most likely be the disconnect between generations. Using AR glasses/lenses and the possibilities it will create will simply feel alien to much of the public. Just like how senior citizens sometimes struggle with the Internet and using smartphones, so too will the current generation of hyper-connected smartphone users find using AR technology too confusing and cumbersome to bother with. It will likely be their children who will truly feel at home with this technology, meaning its mainstream adoption won’t occur until the late 2030s to mid-2040s.
Given all these challenges, it’s likely that widespread AR acceptance won’t happen until a decade after wearables replace smartphones. But when AR does finally penetrate the mass market, it’s ultimate, long-term impact will reveal itself. AR will prepare humanity for the Internet’s endgame.
You see, through AR, future Internet users will be trained to process massive amounts of web data visually and intuitively; they will be trained to view and interact with the real and virtual worlds as one unified reality; they will be trained to understand and become comfortable with the metaphysical. This is important because what comes after AR could change what it means to be human. And as usual, you’ll have to read on to the next chapter to learn what that is.
Future of the Internet series
Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
The Next Social Web vs. Godlike Search Engines: Future of the Internet P2
Rise of the Big Data-Powered Virtual Assistants: Future of the Internet P3
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
The Day Wearables Replace Smartphones: Future of the Internet P5
Virtual Reality and the Global Hive Mind: Future of the Internet P7
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8
Geopolitics of the Unhinged Web: Future of the Internet P9