Augmented reality, for better or worse, threatens reality as we know it.
This essay looks at the history of Augmented Reality and the possible implications and effects of its deployment.
What is Augmented Reality (AR)?
The world of virtual reality allows one to enter a universe that is digitally constructed – ‘a synthetic world’ (Pesce, 2017). On the other hand, as per Pesce (2017), augmented reality joins the two – the real and the digital world, it adds the ‘synthetic’ onto the actual – physical world, thus creating a third space where the lines between the two worlds are blurred. It is essential to note that augmented reality is a ‘real-time’ (Peddie, 2017, p. 20) view of information superimposed on our view of the physical world.
A Brief History of Augmented Reality
Even though a Boeing researcher, Tom Caudell coined the term augmented reality in 1990, historically, the beginning of AR is associated with the hand-mounted display or HMD invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. For AR to work, information has to be generated by the processor in the device and the local data source, however, a remote data source is also required; the augmentation happens by utilising sensory input such as location, video, sound or positional data (Peddie, 2017, p. 20). Hence, the technology behind AR is complex and costly; therefore, its development has been far slower than that of other technologies aiming to blur the line between reality and fantasy.
Many of the early AR systems were specialised and experimental. For instance, the first functioning AR system was built in 1992 in the USAF Armstrong’s Research Lab, and it was used for helping US Air Force pilots train in safer flying methods (Arth et al., 2015). Since then, augmented reality has slowly transitioned from academia and laboratories, firstly to industries and then to everyday consumers. Now, AR applications range from defence and advertising to education, medicine, design and entertainment (Arth et al., 2015).
Project Glass: Live Demo At Google I/O by Google Developers – 28 Jun 2012
In 2012 Google released the Google Glass device; a pair of glasses one could wear, which would layer information on one’s visual field. Since this release, many investors have turned towards AR, with corporations such as Microsoft, Apple and Facebook competing to become leaders in the market. However, AR investments are not solely geared towards the invention of new hardware; newly developed algorithms have allowed for AR technologies to be used on smartphones and other handheld devices (Jung, 2020). One of the most successful smartphone application of AR was the PokemonGO game released by Niantic and Nintendo in July 2016 (Geroimenko, 2019). Since then, the tech giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple have grabbed a share of the AR market while corporations such as Snap and Meitu have utilised AR in their applications which are used by millions daily.
Should we be concerned?
As a human race, we are always striving for better, bigger, more, and a significant part of our journey in advancement is predicated on efficiency and profit. However, as with any technological advancement, it would be a good practise to consider the ethical implications that each invention might bring. Most of us, now, possess a ‘data double’ that is updated continually and always present. Hence, the way we interact with the world, the way we perceive reality and construct it is now mediated by technology and data (Couldry & Hepp, 2017).
Augmented reality, as with any significant technological advancement, does not come without its problems. The release of PokemonGo and its unsurpassed success had very tangible negative consequences ranging from privacy concerns for users’ data, players obstructing traffic to actual fatalities and car accidents. Privacy as discussed by Martinez (2017) is and should be a major concern for AR users. Martinez discusses the marriage of GPS and mobile applications as a paradox. She claims that this coupling allows for a company such as Niantic, in the case with PokemonGo, or any other private, non-government AR company with similar capabilities, to ‘freely collect and disclose geolocation information (GI)’ (Martinez, 2017, p. 727). This then raises further concerns when it comes to targeted advertising, hacking, lack of users’ consent as well as concerns for stalking or users being harmed (Martinez, 2017).
Monetization of Data
However, it is essential to remember that technological advancement does not occur in a vacuum, but is guided by people, their ideas, their knowledge and unfortunately, their biases. We live in Western-centric patriarchal societies that value efficiency and profits before anything else. This made seem like a sweeping statement, but it is not hard to observe how advertising and monetising users’ data has become the prime drive for companies such as Facebook and Google. In her book ‘Algorithms of Oppression’ Noble (2018) investigates bias and prejudice in search engine results. She points to the fact that companies such as Google and Facebook are primarily advertising companies and as such, their motive is profit before anything else. Hence, these companies have naturally inherited the bias and prejudice from traditional media into the way they monetise users’ data for the benefit of their advertising clients (Noble, 2018). Since the key players in the AR sector are the same companies, it is not hard to imagine AR being funded by advertising and thus being hijacked for profit, with the same biases being transferred and mapped on to our existing reality.
— OCTOS (@octosau) August 9, 2018
Further, if this was the case, Noble’s argument could be potentially applied to AR. Pesce (2017) calls AR systems ‘very sophisticated surveillance systems’. He argues that Facebook will utilise these systems and the data gathered from them to alter our sense of reality (Pesce, 2017). If not regulated, in similar ways as physical spaces are regulated, AR has the potential to bring further polarisation and oppression on already marginalised and oppressed communities. A perfect example of AR being taken-over by advertising and the biases that drive the advertising sector is the film by Keiichi Matsuda called ‘Hyper-Reality’. In the film we can see the way applications can use users’ data to alter product packaging depending on the buyer, overload the physical spaces with personalised advertisements and incentivise the user to keep using the application by collecting points.
Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda 19 May 2016
My main interactions with AR have been through filters on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. I primarily use the filters to record funny videos to communicate with friends and family overseas and in Australia. We have created a trend within my community to seek out comic filters, develop characters and stories as part of our socialising. In that manner, I believe AR has added an entertainment value in our social circle.
AR filter for Halloween by @joannitante
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Hello fellow Junji Ito fans – this filter’s for you!✨ This one’s inspired by one of his characters Azami Kurotani from Uzumaki. Look for Junji Ito: Azami in the Filter Library. 💀 Swipe to see snippets of my process. Comments, suggestions, and commissions are welcome.🧡 Hope you guys have fun with this one. Don’t forget to tap to change. Happy Spooky Szn!🎃 #igarhalloween2020 #sparkar #filter #igar #halloween #haloween2020 #makeup #halloweencostume #halloweenmakeup #filterar #augmentedreality #effects #ar #filters #filter #faceeffects #lenslist #instagramfilters #instafilter #sparkarcreators #filipinoart #artph #artphilippines #filipinoartist #artlife #gore #junjiito #manga #uzumaki #gore #horror #horrorart
To conclude, as with any technology, the development and deployment of AR should be monitored and regulated. Since the companies that are driving AR deployment are earning profits through advertising, we should be wary of the way our data is being used and strive for data rights.
Arth, C., Grasset, R., Gruber, L., Langlotz, T., Mulloni, A., & Wagner, D. (2015). The history of mobile augmented reality. Ithaca: Cornell University Library, arXiv.org. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.usyd.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/2083790907?accountid=14757
Couldry, N., & Hepp, A. (2017). The mediated construction of reality . Polity Press.
Geroimenko, V. (2019). Augmented Reality Games I Understanding the Pokémon GO Phenomenon . Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15616-9
Jung, T., tom Dieck, M., & Rauschnabel, P. (2020). Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Changing Realities in a Dynamic World (1st ed. 2020.). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-37869-1
Martinez, D. (2017). Counteracting diminished privacy in an augmented reality: Protecting geolocation privacy. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, 50(4), 713-740.
Matsuda, K. (Director). (2016). Hyper-Reality [Motion Picture].
Noble, Safiya U. (2018) A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University. pp. 15-63
Peddie, J. (2017). Augmented Reality Where We Will All Live . Springer International Publishing.
Pesce, Mark (2017) The Last Days of Reality. Meanjin. Summer 2017. https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-last-days-of-reality/