What does augmented reality look like? How much is the augmented reality impact humans?
This web essay introduces the history of AR and its functions, then presents views about AR’s social implications and values on commercial bases from the perspective of media studies.
After experiencing the telegraph, television, and social networks, the speed of the transmission and reproduction of information has increased with the replacement of new media and the elimination of old media. In the twenty-first century, we have ushered in an era of high freedom of access to information. According to Marshall McLuhan’s well-known theory, “the medium is the message”(1964: 5), one can understand that the medium is a part of the transmitted content which affects people’s perception toward information and behavior. This web essay analyzes augmented reality as an emerging medium, Its birth enables the deep participation of human senses which changes the current media environment, creates extraordinary value at the commercial level; At the same time, it gives libertarians a broader liberal space for development, but it amplifies their exploitative behavior. I further conclude that the birth of AR is the product of the human pursuit of freedom, while supervision and regulation are necessary.
Background of AR
McLuhan offers the famous idea that the medium is the extension of human senses in his book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1964: 27). According to his notions, people can consider augmented reality as a more advanced medium than newspapers, TVs, web pages, etc because it further extends the visual effect, but also combines various senses, such as hearing, touch, smell and so on. According to the definition provided by Azuma’s survey, AR is a medium that combines the real and virtual worlds, allowing digital information to be displayed in the physical world and allowing people to engage in real-time (1997).
From the history of AR development, people have always been pursuing more realistic technology experiences and the way to obtain and transform information conveniently. As such, technology continues to improve with people’s cognition of use and psychological needs.
As early as 60 years ago, Moton Heilig invented the earliest immersive VR machine named Sensorama (figure 1), which includes multi-sensory technologies on vision, hearing, vibration, and smell (Kipper and Rampolla, 2012: 7).
Figure 1: The Sensorama machine invented by Morton Heilig
Image: U.S. Patent, All rights reserved.
In 1985, Myron Krueger, known as the pioneer of AR, invented the first AR system “Videoplace” that allowed users to interact with digital information. This short film records how “Videoplace” presents different digital content as the user moves.
“Videoplace” system invented by Myron Krueger, Uploaded by VintageCG, Some rights reserved
With the penetration of mobile technology, the combination of AR and mobile computing promotes the convenience of people’s lives. In 2001, Gerhard Reitmayr and Dieter Schmalstieg first invented the “Mobile Collaborative AR System” (2001: 114) which allows multiple mobile users to interact in a shared augmented reality space, see figure 2. This design further provides people with inspiration for the combination of AR and mobile application, such as the follow-up “Wikitude World Browser“that uses GPS positioning to display useful map information in the real world.
Figure 2: Multiple players interact through “Mobile Collaborative AR System” (Reitmayr & Schmalstieg, 2011)
Throughout the entire development history, AR functions have been continuously improved. From users passively accepting multiple sensory information to actively engaging within a virtual space, AR has changed the way people transmit information and formed a new media environment.
As one of the most advanced mediums at present, the combination of AR and mobile devices such as smartphone, iPad shows its potential and trend of future commercial development. According to statistics from ARtillery Intelligence (figure 3), the number of users of AR-compatible smartphones worldwide is as high as 3.4 billion and has been steadily increasing year by year. This will become a potential market for mobile AR. In addition, since 2018, mobile AR devices from giant corporations have emerged in the market and gradually increased their share, such as Apple ARkit, Facebook AR, Google ARCore, etc. The invention of these devices by these giant technology companies represents that mobile AR will become popular products in the future, bringing huge profits to the companies, and gradually shaping a competitive ecosystem in the industry. A famous example of a mobile AR application makes profits is that the game named Pokémon Go, which creates “$894 million in gross player spending and 55 million downloads (Boland, 2020).
From “How Big is the Mobile AR Market?” by Mike Boland, ARtillery Intelligence, All rights reserved.
The previous part talked about AR with its excellent ability to extend human senses, which far surpasses 2D mainstream media such as TV, and the web, bringing people a richer experience and providing commercial value. The next part will provide views that with the media environment changes, what are the consequences if AR penetrates all aspects of our society and life?
Google AR Core is combined with the search engine to display 3D augmented content shown by the search results. This short video posted by Sameer Kureshi shows how to display AR animal images with AR Core. It is worth noting that every keyword searched by the displayer was recorded by the search engine, and the behavior of viewing photos through AR Core is no exception. We can further speculate that Google as a media platform monitors user’s behavior and harness their data by the algorithm to “game” the system to earn, and therefore it reflects that AR users are controlled by the hidden power of parties and businesses.
YouTube video shows how to display AR animal images with AR Core.
Uploaded by Sameer Kureshi, Some rights reserved.
The blend of reality and virtual means that users will see fuller information and experience stronger emotions. Therefore, AR is used in various online communities and artistic creations. World Brush is an app that can be used to create virtual graffiti on urban buildings. Users can create graffiti on the buildings in an augmented space, in fact, there is no harm to the buildings. This application allows users to have a higher degree of freedom to use their imagination, but it is noteworthy that their behavior is difficult to track in reality and makes it difficult for government and law enforcement to manage. As Bliz said, “damage might be done by the falsity or deception in this speech even when it occurs in the virtual realm (2018: 308).” These free and harmful speeches will cause instability in the physical world, and how to balance the control of the real and virtual world becomes a problem.
In addition, the popularity of such mobile AR apps has lowered the barriers for users to access information. Any user who downloads the app can make cultural production to be put anywhere, which forms a new online augmented community for sharing and cooperation (Couldry, 2015: 610). Thus, align with online social media, it has fewer government controls but greater individual’s self-moderation. It reveals what Ong states about neoliberalism which requires people to be free and self-managing in different spheres of everyday life (2007: 4).” Therefore, It seems to me that in a neoliberal political environment, not only companies but each of us prioritizes our own interests and abuses our own source of power, which will be unfair to vulnerable groups.
In the final part of The Fog of Freedom, Kelty writes “Only through augmentation (technologies) could our true selves emerge…” (2014: 215). The meaning is that technology has promoted the evolution of media, from 2D to 3D, from newspapers to AR, the human senses have extended through the medium. At one point human beings are searching for more advanced ways of obtaining and transmitting information, and more importantly, human beings have been searching for the possibility of their senses breaking through the limitations of reality so that freedom is extended. However, although AR has given humans the liberal to use their power and sources under the thought of neoliberal political economy, as a carrier of technology, it also shows the liberal’s “idiosyncratic contradiction”(Capps, 2010: 279) in which the individual’s liberty can affect collective liberty. For instance, antisocial and exploitative behavior, which to be more specific, harmful speech and data privacy issues. In my conclusion, in this era of blending virtual and real, it is necessary to reduce individual freedom to satisfy collective freedom in order to make cooperation more equal, so individuals have to obey external supervision. Here, the media platforms play a key role to regulate and surveillant citizens’ behaviors.
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