Constant advancements in technology have given rise to augmented reality (AR) predating all the way to the 1950s. But what exactly is it; how is it applied across different contexts; and who actually benefits or even face losses from the technology? These questions often arise upon the introduction of a new technological invention, and it is no different from AR. In this essay, using existing literature, a critical examination of AR will be done through an analysis of its origins, key stakeholders, and an evaluation of three important elements: its benefits, limitations, and imposed dangers.
Today, it is possible to simulate musical instruments through digital devices, the creation of scenes in movies that are impossible to make in real life is now possible through 3D rendering technologies, and image-editing software such as Photoshop has allowed creators to superimpose objects that are not actually in the original composition (Craig, 2013). All this operates similarly to augmented reality technologies. Augmented reality (AR) refers to technologies that enable users to directly or indirectly view added digital “layers” onto a physical environment (Carmigniani et al., 2011). In essence, AR adds metadata to our existing reality (Pesce, 2020).
Outlined in Azuma’s work (1997, as cited in Craig, 2013), there are three elements in AR: a combination of real and virtual, real-time interactivity, and 3D registration. Adding onto the three elements, Craig (2013) adds that the digital/virtual information is dependent on the location and physical perspective of the user in the physical world.
To better understand the concept of AR, Milgram et al. (1994) proposed the ‘reality-virtuality continuum’ that displays the range between the real environment and the virtual environment:
Summarised by Carmigniani et al. (2011), there are four main devices that comprise AR: displays, input devices, tracking, and computers. With displays — essentially the most important physical aspect of AR — a predisposition exists that links AR with head-mounted displays. However, technological advancements have led to the creation of handheld displays, such as smartphones, and spatial displays. These three are illustrated respectively below.
AR Through Time
The industrial revolution led to rapid technological and infrastructural advancements. The origins of AR dates back to mid-1900s when Morton Heilig built Sensorama in attempt to draw cinema viewers into the screen in 1962 and the first head-mounted AR display was then invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1968 (Carmigniani et al., 2011), though the term augmented reality itself was not coined until the 1990s by Tom Caudell, a researcher for the aerospace company Boeing. Since then, AR has been applied to a vast array of industries.
A more comprehensive timeline of AR is further illustrated by the following figure:
The figure above shows the vast multitude of applications for AR, ranging from sports, classified media, automotive industry, wearables, to retail. In addition, gaming is also another industry that has significantly utilised AR technologies, with Pokémon GO and Ingress being two mega-hits of AR gaming; both with millions of users, and both released by Niantic. Furthermore, 35 percent of non-regular gamers have reportedly expressed interest in AR gaming, showing interest of the general population in the technology.
In 2019, the following companies were the key figures in the AR field; Apple, Microsoft, Niantic, Zappar, AR Labs, Lucyd, and Magic Leap, as reported by Foundry4. Facebook has also been said to be delving into the AR and virtual reality business, with one of its acquisitioned virtual reality company Oculus, in addition to Facebook’s Spark and Portal brands, being rebranded to “Facebook Reality Labs”.
Though so, another important company that applies AR technologies is Snap — usually known by its image-based social networking site (SNS) Snapchat. Surprisingly, Snap’s involvement with the AR is usually missed by the general population. Often time, users do not even realize that Snapchat’s filters are actually AR. This oversight can be explained by noting the platform’s high involvement in its users’ lives, perhaps even daily involvement, especially with Millennials and Gen Z — key users of the SNS. The image above illustrates Snapchat’s AR filters called Lenses released in 2017, which overlays subjects with an array of filters.
A report by Ericsson (2019) concludes that the future of AR lies in not just gaming, but also in everyday life. This is because as stated by Pesce (2020), AR technologies allow meaning to be entrenched into space — what was previously a vacant area that people use is now added with digital layers that brings a whole new experience for them, one that is filled with innovative and immersive additions to mundane life. Moreover, although early years of AR had faced difficulties in proportionate distribution for commercial use (i.e actual sales of AR) due to its hefty costs and large sizes, the internet and computers are now widely available to the general population, owned by the average household (Tabusca, 2015). Today, AR is much closer to us than we think.
Video: Say Hej to IKEA Place, IKEA (2017, September 13), Standard Youtube License
Privacy is one ethical issue harbouring AR, as different types of sensors (e.g eye tracking) are used which can potentially be exploited for capitalistic means. However, in other social terms, a limitation on AR concerns user safety. Specifically, the idea that users are more prone to accidents in real life as they are drawn into the AR display more than the real world (Havig, 2012). Take for example toe Pokémon GO hit phenomenon which drove drivers into traffic accidents and even two men falling off a cliff while playing the game. Bengler and Passaro (2006, as cited in Van Krevelen, 2010) at BMW in contrast take extra precautionary measures to ensure that AR information is only used to improve driving and not distracting in nature.
Further concerns arise with respect to social environment regarding the concept of inclusivity within AR. With typical head-mounted displays or even the more sophisticated of “Smart Glasses” e.g Google’s Glass or Facebook’s Project Aria are deemed exclusionary and even ableist (Wong et al., 2017, as cited in Carter & Egliston, 2020).
Video: Facebook’s Project Aria, CNET Highlights (2020, September 17), Standard Youtube License
These inventions completely ignore people with disabilities — take for a simple example, prescription glass wearers.
Intersectional disability is also a concern, as found by Wong et al (2017, as cited in Carter & Egliston, 2020) through a study respondent highlighting the importance of inputting secondary sexual characters in the AR world.
…and The Ugly
Points regarding limitations of AR is further illustrated in the dystopian video below.
Video: HYPER-REALITY, Keiichi Matsuda (2016, May 19), Standard Youtube License
Although the video can be deemed as an application of AR that is rather far-fetched and exaggerated in contrast with actual current applications, the video effectively outlines the dangers of AR — data security shown through the hacked account, personalised advertising shown through the switch-up between fat-loss yogurt to muscle-gaining produce which may distort one’s perspective on reality, and overstimulation of the brain significantly elaborated upon contrasting the real world and the AR world at the scene where the system was being reset. All these bring questions to the political environment as well as the social environment that are highly impacted by the technology.
As previously mentioned, privacy is one significant issue that exists within AR technologies. Data accumulation, retention, and expropriation have been noted to not only be used for means of profitability but also to amplify structural power (Carter & Egliston, 2020). Various arrays of digital sensors are generally placed on AR devices as part of the technology, but often time is used for a different agenda by corporate giants and potentially, the government.
Augmented reality is indeed an integrated part of technologies and information systems today. The development of AR has shown significant changes in how society operates today. Though so, questions still arise on the “agenda” of AR technological development — whether it is a good created for the betterment of lives, or whether it is a technology used to further deepen authoritarianism and capitalism within society today.
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