In short, Augmented Reality is an internet innovation that both benefits and disadvantages social and cultural groups. Augmented Reality (AR) refers to a digital projection over the real world, which crafts a technological illusion that blurs the lines between virtual and reality (Pesce, 2017). This essay will look into the conception and diffusion of AR, Power and control in AR and the impact of AR on different social and cultural groups. It is worth noting that AR is a fundamental part of Mixed Reality (MR) so therefore, issues and benefits that arise from the use of AR are likely to be present in MR. However, the focus of this essay will be on AR as an internet innovation.
The conception and spread of Augmented Reality
To begin, Augmented Reality dates back almost 53 years with its origins being in flight control software that was used by pilots. The AR software was used as a way to help these pilots make quicker and more informed life or death decisions in a way that was more easily understood. From this, prominent tech company Google introduced an AR software called ‘Glass’ that served as a way for users to view data from the search engine as a projection over the real world (Pesce, 2017). This shows us how AR has evolved from being used as an educational tool for being employed by technology companies as a commercial product.
Similarly, Early versions of AR require hardware that covers the eyes. However, more recent forms of AR are available through smartphones. A popular example of this is the mobile game Pokémon Go which gave people a new perspective of AR. The application projects virtual Pokémon over the real world. Pokémon GO was particularly innovative for a mobile app as it made the real world the setting for the game which in turn, encourages users to travel through real-world spaces to find new Pokémon. (Pesce, 2017). Aside from mobile applications, AR is also seen in the video production sphere, particularly in 3D cinema. Such pieces of film offer viewers an immersive experience that projects cinema experience on to a real-world setting (Jones, 2020, p. 113). These kinds of AR are important to look at because they represent how AR is coming into existence and diffusing itself as a regular part of the broader cultural scene.
Control, Power and Ownership in Augmented Reality
Secondly, Augmented Reality that is pioneered by social media companies will need to make users feel the same way that their platform does. Users need to feel confident in themselves, their beliefs and the world that they live in. This will allow Augmented Reality designers to subtly rewrite the realities that are present to us (Pesce, 2017). In terms of control, it is both the AR designers and the technology companies that they work with that own and control business surrounding the technology.
By the same token, it is important to look at the power relationship users have with these technological platforms. Most platforms control what their users see through algorithm-laced news feeds and suggested content. So, when a technology like AR is centred around shaping what users see, we can immediately assume that we will not see what we want to see but rather what platform owners, AR designers, and advertisers on the platforms want us to see (Pesce, 2017). I argue that whilst AR designers and technology companies such as Facebook have control over the AR technology they implement and produce, they give power to the advertisers and other sources that pay to have information featured and shown to users on their platforms.
In addition to this, users are made to feel like they have control over these platforms, blinded that the subliminal processes that are influencing and reaffirming their ideas and beliefs. In AR, user control is reinforced through the interaction’s users have with other users and the spaces they create through these interactions (Craig, 2013, p. 206-207). In other words, Users make social AR spaces what they are, but it is ultimately the platform owners and AR designers that mediate these interactions and govern where and how these interactions take place.
The Impact of AR on different Social and Cultural groups
Finally, While some groups will benefit from the introduction of Augmented Reality in the mainstream cultural and social scene, other groups may face risks, challenges, and potential exclusion. Many smartphone devices have positive reputations amongst their users. Therefore, there is a degree of in-built trust with the properties of the device such as its applications. This allows AR applications to exploit the trust users have not only in their devices but also in the information it provides (Pase, 2012, p. 2). If we consider platforms like Facebook and Google implementing AR in their applications, we can see how this can be problematic for some groups. While persons with up-to-date devices and internet access may enjoy the full social experience and benefit from AR, others who can only afford incompatible devices and have little to no access to the internet will be left with a choice between upgrading or being excluded. Furthermore, the discrimination against people of colour, LGBTQIA+ persons, disabled persons, and other minority groups on these social media platforms would not just disappear with the introduction of AR. I argue that because AR blurs the lines between virtual and reality, discrimination on these platforms against people from minority groups would be blurred between virtual and reality as well. This could result in minority groups experiencing discrimination in a much more severe manner and platform moderators and owners finding it difficult to hold oppressors accountable.
Also, just as social media platforms find ways to influence their users to have specific beliefs and ideas, AR that is integrated into these platforms will be no different. Elderly, children and low socioeconomic persons represent some of these many groups that are vulnerable to influences and persuasions that are present on social media platforms and thus, AR platforms (Pase, 2012, p. 3). Therefore, AR integration in these platforms would pose the risk of these vulnerable groups being exploited by social media companies. Exploitation can range from encouraging particular political beliefs to spamming vulnerable users with advertisements pertaining to their current health, social, or cultural status.
In contrast, AR can be used in a way to beneficial way. From its conception, AR has been an innovative and helpful addition to educational settings by allowing users to visualise their profession in a way that is safe and encourages growth and accuracy in their craft. Examples of this include AR projections of brain scans for Neurosurgeons and AR projections of potential patients and scenarios for medical students. In fact, such technology is being used in real-life settings such as in Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where physicians use Google Glass to project clinical data while they examine their patients (Lyon, 2017). From this, I argue that AR software and applications are beneficial to users and patients when used in an educational and medical setting but, exploitive of vulnerable and minority groups when integrated into social media platforms. Therefore, the groups of people who benefit from the transformative effects of AR are based on the setting in which it is introduced and accessed rather than from AR itself.
In conclusion, Augmented Reality is an internet innovation that both benefits and disadvantages social and cultural groups. AR has gone from being used for educational purposes to being diffused into the broader cultural scene as commercial devices and fundamental parts of applications. These AR devices and applications are controlled by the AR designers and technology companies that produce them. However, it is the intentions of these designers and technology companies that govern which groups can benefit from AR and which cannot.