Augmented reality (AR) could be easily perceived as a new technological fad, seen in novel applications such as Snapchat filters or Pokémon GO that won’t endure the test of time. This essay will delve beyond such perspectives, tracing AR’s developments from its genesis in the 1960s to potential future applications that may shape the course of everyday life.
Beyond a simple history, it is important to consider the dimensions of power at play, with an outline of ownership and control of key businesses in the field being provided. With this knowledge, the political economic and sociocultural effects of AR will be identified, exploring who is positioned to benefit from these transformations and who will be left out.
Before diving into the timeline of AR’s development, it is crucial to consolidate an understanding of what AR actually is. Caudell and Mizell’s seminal paper coining the term defined it as technology that “is used to ‘augment’ the visual field of the user with information necessary in the performance of the current task” (1992, p. 660).
More recently, AR technologies are considered as those able to fuse real and virtual worlds, with movable devices providing “embodied navigation through a remediated world” (Jones, 2019, p. 101). With it often being confused with virtual reality (VR), Azuma et al. (2001, p. 34) have provided an adaption of Milgram and Kishino’s virtual-reality continuum to depict where AR fits along the spectrum of mixed reality (MR):
A brief history of AR’s conceptions
Caudell and Mizell (1992) consider the development of the first AR system to have arisen from a need to improve the manufacturing of Boeing 747 aircrafts, with Ivan Sutherland developing a head-mounted display to assist in this process in 1968. The following decades witnessed important developments in consumer electronics necessary for AR technologies to progress, such as the first tablet computer in 1972, first mobile phone in 1973 and first laptop in 1982 (Arth et al., 2015, pp. 2-3).
After the coining of the phrase and release of the first smartphone in 1992, the concept of AR became established enough for Azuma’s 1997 (cited in Azuma et al., 2001, p. 34) survey to identify three defining properties of such a system:
- “Combines real and virtual objects in a real environment”
- “Runs interactively, and in real time”
- “Registers (aligns) real and virtual objects with each other”
Related technologies relying on the use of cameras, Wi-Fi and location tracking flourished at the turn of the century. Important developments included the first commercial camera phone in 2000, outdoor AR tracking systems in 2006 and the commercial release of Microsoft’s Kinect in 2010 (Arth et al., 2015, pp, 9-24).
The introduction of the Google Glass in 2012 was a major milestone for unobtrusive AR headsets, with the now Facebook-owned VR headset Oculus Rift going to market the same year. Consumer AR became truly mainstream in 2016, with Niantic’s Pokémon GO merging fantasy realms with everyday life for smartphone users and transforming widespread perceptions of AR.
Before diving into issues of power and control surrounding current applications of AR, check out ScienceTime’s video outlining the current state of the industry and where it’s heading in the near future.
Ownership and control
As all representations of space “are both the products and producers of specific configurations of power relations” (Graham, Zook & Boulton, 2012, p. 468), it is important to be aware of the dynamics of power at play in AR developments. Pesce considers all AR systems to fundamentally be systems of surveillance, so identifying the key industry players can help address questions of data ownership.
Bailenson’s (2018, p. 7) account of Mark Zuckerberg’s first VR experience in 2014 and resulting acquisition of the tech startup Oculus VR for over $2 billion mere weeks later demonstrates how quickly Facebook dived into the MR industry to become a leading player. With an unreliable history of exploiting user data, VR/AR devices present even more opportunity for invading consumer privacy and enforcing surveillance capitalism (Carter & Egliston, 2020a, p. 17). It looks like these trends aren’t set to stop, with Oculus updating their user license agreement to include the sharing of biometric data with marketing firms, as well as requiring log-in through Facebook in a step-back for user freedom.
Bailenson described Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, as “high on VR” (2018, p. 11) after his first experience with the technology, immediately understanding its magnitude and the revolutionary developments to come. That being said, Apple is a lot more secretive with their MR investments, with the company’s secret job openings making it hard to gauge exactly where they sit in the competitive field, although their power to bring AR to consumers through the iPhone is undeniable.
Of course, there are many other companies investing in MR beyond these two major players, including HTC, Intel and Qualcomm. It is also worth observing which industries are making greater investments in these technologies.
— Ronald van Loon (@Ronald_vanLoon) October 17, 2019
Current applications and who they benefit
AR has the potential to create transformative effects across a wide range of domains through its current and future applications. Krevelen and Poelman (2010, pp. 10-14) identify some main categories of AR technology use:
- Personal information systems
- Industrial and military applications
- Medical applications
- AR for entertainment
- AR for the office
- Education and training
However, it is important to note that these effects do not benefit everyone equally, so the political economic and sociocultural ramifications should be unpacked.
The inherent link between MR technologies and surveillance is captured in Jones’ suggestion that “space is not only watched and experienced, but in many ways watches back” (2019, p. 114). This ties into privacy concerns associated with programs such as Facebook’s Project Aria, which holds the potential to create a panopticon society upheld by sousveillance.
Constant surveillance reinforces the power of governments and corporations who hold control over the technology, with Carter and Egliston noting AR’s ability to further the power imbalances created by surveillant technologies like CCTV and biometrics that already “disproportionately target the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society” (2020a, p. 23).
As one can expect from Facebook’s AR devices particularly, such technologies can be utilised as a tool for marketers to optimize consumer engagement (Scholz & Smith, 2019, p. 155). This can further their potential for behavioural control, taking freedom away from everyday tech users and solidifying the entrenched power of monopolistic media corporations.
Inequalities also shape the sociocultural dimensions of AR use, with “the uneven reach of content and code … [impacting] social and spatial sorting in everyday life” (Graham, Zook & Boulton, 2012, p. 171). Beyond influencing social dynamics through sousveillance and panopticism, negative ramifications of AR include the potential to be used as a deliberate tool for hate speech, as well as the further exclusion of marginalised groups.
For example, being blind in one eye and so lacking binocular vision means I can’t use 3D glasses and don’t expect to be able to effectively use AR headsets. I can only imagine to what greater extent those who are visually impaired or have other disabilities will be excluded. Access to the technology will of course also be uneven across geopolitical and socioeconomic dimensions, potentially furthering the digital divide.
Attention must still be given to positive impacts of AR – games like Pokémon GO turn everyday surroundings into sites of ludic entertainment (Jones, 2019, p. 102), innovations like Ulta’s virtual beauty tool GLAMlab have enabled the survival of retail in a pandemic, and applications in education and entertainment are increasing.
This video from Snapchat provides an example of AR’s ability to enhance cultural life, showcasing their Local Lenses tool that builds a collaborative digital world directly on top of the physical world that is accessible to the everyday smartphone user.
Bailenson believes “consumer VR is coming like a freight train” (2018, p. 12), and I think also applies to AR. It’s clear that this technology is more than a fad, having a long-reaching history leading towards increasing consumer offerings in the near future. With an array of valuable applications, the benefits of AR can’t be denied, but it is important to understand the power dynamics at play and who stands to profit from data capture and behavioural control. With that in mind, I can only suggest that consumers strive to remain aware of the political economic and sociocultural implications of the technologies they use, as well as hoping that government bodies work to create regulations that ensure AR systems are employed ethically and democratically.
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Azuma, R., Baillot, Y., Behringer, R., Feiner, S., Julier, S. & MacIntyre, B. (2001). Recent advances in augmented reality. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 21(6), 34-47. doi: 10.1109/38.963459
Carter, M. & Egliston, B. (2020a). Ethical implications of emerging mixed reality technologies. Retrieved from the University of Sydney Library website: https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/22485/ETHICAL%20IMPLICATIONS.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
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