Augmented Reality – Friend or Foe?

Augmented reality could be the future, but is that a future we are happy to embrace?

An augmented reality software adding furniture in AR
Augmented Reality by Uniboa on Unsplash

On July 6, 2016, The Pokémon Company and Niantic released their joint augmented reality project, Pokémon Go, across Australia and New Zealand, with a US release following the next day. It was an instant hit, making worldwide headlines, and recording over 10,000,000 downloads within the first week. Pokémon Go’s widespread success in the public sphere was unprecedented, and went to show that augmented reality, or AR, is a technology with the potential to change our everyday lives.

A picture of Pokemon Go being played
“Pokemon Go” by Paintimpact, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Augmented reality emerged as a technology almost 50 years ago, originating from flight control systems for jet fighter pilots (Pesce, 2017), and since then, AR has evolved into a novel technology that is yet to see mainstream success, but is widely used across a range of niches. However, there is a steep cost to creating and maintaining AR systems, meaning that the primary demographic to benefit from augmented reality systems are those able to afford it – governments and large corporations. However, the use of AR is much more accessible, as AR can be easily implemented through a smartphones camera – providing augmented reality with the opportunity to become entrenched into our current society. 

Augmented Reality and History

Augmented reality is defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera)’. It originates from techniques developed for Virtual Reality (VR), but ‘interacts not only with a virtual world, but has a degree of interdependence with the real world’ (Lemieux, Mekni, 2014, p.205).

As aforementioned, the emergence of augmented reality of a technology dates back around 50 years, originating from a system designed for WWII pilots to better control their fighter jets:

With pilots overwhelmed by critical information, and under pressure to make life-or-death decisions, augmented reality crunched that sea of data into easily understood graphics, helping them make better, faster decisions. A few years ago Google reignited a dormant field when it introduced ‘Glass’: eyewear for generation cyborg, with a see-through projection lens that pasted data direct from the Googleplex over the outside world.

               – Pesce, 2017

With this revival, AR came to the forefront of modern technology. With the technology available to now support the implementation of such a concept, AR was transformed from a theoretical future technology, to having the potential to be an innovative everyday tool. As seen with the fighter pilots, augmented reality presents a visual way of absorbing information, that can be easily interpreted and integrated into every day life. Moreover, a unique benefit to AR is its ability to interact with the real world. Most commonly, this is implemented through a smartphone’s camera, however innovations such as the Google Glass allow for a more seamless real-world overlay directly through our vision.

Google Glass being worn
“Google Glass and Future Health 25822” by tedeytan, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This concept invites developments in the communications management field, as it results in messages and information being displayed directly in our vision, rather than having to access communications through an external device such as a phone or computer. Moreover, AR-based communications invites a higher level of interactivity when it comes to communications – for example, imagine video-calling, but the person is simply in the corner of your vision as you continue on in your daily tasks. With our society now highly relying on technological tools for communication, the concept of communication becoming seamlessly integrated into our everyday life is a popular one.

This idea of creative communication through augmented reality isn’t to a new one, and can be seen in pop culture dating back as far as the inception of AR itself. This fascinating YouTube video explores the history of augmented reality in pop culture, and explains why we think of AR the way we do today:


Augmented Reality in Society and the Political Economy

When it comes to businesses in the augmented reality field, Google is likely the most well known , thanks to their innovations such as the Google Glass. Niantic is also a familiar name, particularly in AR gaming, due to the success of Pokémon Go.

However, beyond these two organisations, some key AR businesses are:

  • Microsoft – the well-known tech company is expanding into AR glasses with their ‘Hololens’
  • Zappar – a leading organisation in the field of AR
  • Lucyd – a company selling tech-focused eyewear
  • Magic Leap – a leading manufacturer of AR headsets
Magic Leap’s AR headset, ‘Magic Leap 1’. Image from Magic Leap, all rights reserved.

As previously mentioned, augmented reality is extremely costly to create and maintain, meaning that the scope of those who can utilise it as a creative medium is restricted. The primary creators of AR-focused projects are large corporations and governments, who are able to afford it. However, AR is much more inexpensive for users, with the majority of commercial projects being implemented through a smartphone camera. Thus, the parties who have most benefitted from AR’s effects are the aforementioned: large corporations and governments whom are able to afford to create AR. The tech industry has also deeply benefitted, as demand is rapidly increasing for AR-creation tools, as well as mediums to implement it on beyond smartphones.

Yet, not everyone benefits from augmented reality. Due to the specificity of AR’s use, two niche demographics are excluded; those who are blind, and those who do not own a smartphone.

Moreover, AR poses a threat to markets that currently occupy areas that could potentially be overrun by AR in the future, such as communications media and information management platforms. However, AR is still in its infancy when it comes to everyday use, so some time exists until this comes to fruition. 

Augmented Reality in Everyday Life

Consequently, as AR is yet to see mainstream success and everyday implementation, it has little bearing on my current study, work, and everyday life beyond the scope of games such as Pokémon Go and software like IKEA’s AR app.

However, one major problem arises when it comes to the concept of AR in our every day lives: privacy. In a future where the digital and physical worlds overlap, there is potential for the internet to lose its anonymity, and for privacy to be severely reduced due to personal data being freely available across this new, augmented world. For example, imagine pointing a camera at someone’s face and being able to instantly learn their identity, and have a link to their online profile and data. This is a very real possibility, that is already being seen through Facebook’s facial recognition software.  

An example of Facebook's facial recognition software
An example of Facebook’s facial recognition software. Image from Techcrunch, all rights reserved.

Moreover, privacy issues have also been a focus when it comes to technology such as augmented reality glasses and other eye-tracking applications. Through tracking our eye movements, these software are able to track what we observe, and what we are most interested in. This is a large privacy concern as we lose a level of control over what data we are submitting, and instead are tracked down to our very thoughts and unconscious eye movements. AR and VR expert Avi Bar-Zeev further explores this issue in this informative VICE article: “The Eyes are The Prize: Eye-Tracking Technology is Advertising’s Holy Grail”. 

In Conclusion…

Augmented reality is an upcoming technology that has the potential to develop into a prominent everyday technology. However, due to the steep cost of implementation and upkeep, as of now it is only available to large corporations and governments who are able to afford it. Though, beyond the futuristic implementation of things such as augmented reality eyewear, it only requires a smartphone to be used, so it is accessible to the large majority of society.

As of now, AR has little bearing on the life or the everyday person, but could potentially become a part of everyday life in the future. However, privacy concerns have been raised due to the combination of the digital world and real one, along with the concept of eye tracking. Overall, augmented reality is an intriguing technology that, beyond the aforementioned issues, has the potential to one day change our everyday lives.



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About Hannah McCormack 4 Articles
Second year Design Computing student at University of Sydney.