I’ll Have Some Reality With That!

Our world is becoming increasingly augmented through digital technology; Snapchat Filters, Pokémon GO and Ikea Place bringing Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream.

As high quality AR becomes pre-installed in the latest smartphone updates with ARKit and ARCore on Apple IoS and Android respectively, we will increasingly see our world through an augmented lens. When will it stop? Will we get to a tipping point where, much like the revival of the vinyl record, we will yearn for a retro real-life experience?

Talk of Augmented Reality used to conjure up visions of immersive head sets and connected spectacles like Google Glass, yet it was through the omnipresent and ever more powerful smartphone screen that Augmented Reality has really hit the mainstream. Pokémon Go with over 750M[i] downloads has brought augmented reality to the masses, and it’s on our consumer smartphones that augmented reality is thriving.

For example, on a visit to a museum like the Smithsonian you can use their “Skin and Bones” app to see the body of an animal whose skeleton you are viewing. Before your visit to the museum you might have raced virtual zombies and not the clock on your early morning run with the augmented running app, Zombies, Run! After your trip to the museum you can use Autotrader’s AR app to see what your dream car looks like on the drive of your dream house, and then when you get home you could see what that new Ikea sofa or bookcase would look like in your living room. Each of these is possible now, with the download of an app, the swipe of a finger and a smartphone AR experience.

The next day you might wander from place to place finding additional layers of AR appearing on your screen via maps in location apps like Yelp and Waze. Location based services are leveraging the increasing digitisation of physical space to deliver contextual narratives. Whilst these begin with historical facts and commercials opportunities (pop-in we’re just round the corner), will they then expand into sabotage (don’t go in there, they’re crap and we’re fab), as well political messaging bringing with it real and fake news, with all this coming to your screen integrated, overlaid and competing with ‘real’ reality.

Our work lives are not immune either. AR is finding favour in our professional lives, where investment in high-tech viewing devices like Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens tends to dominate in preference to the ubiquitous screen of the SmartPhone.

In June 2013 Rafael Grossmann was the first surgeon to perform surgery supported by Google Glass, demonstrating the potential of AR in training, especially in areas which require physical precision and control. Further applications in medical training are being explored by outfits like FundamentalVR, whose haptic surgical instrument is millimetre perfect with a different feel for bone, marrow, muscle and veins. It’s also being explored in sectors like defence and engineering where our own InnovationLab has created Hololens prototypes to deliver more effective training, faster and cheaper than before.

So Augmented Reality is starting to invade our personal and our working lives. But where will it end? Not soon, it seems. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is predicting that AR will render TV and most of the hardware we use today obsolete. He’s identified contact lenses with augmented graphical overlays as the future, creating a world where every new experience is a new app or data stream, downloaded, projected and overloaded onto our eyeballs. Yes, we can all be Neo in this Matrix.

If that’s the world we are entering, will we end up with all aspects of our lives augmented and supplemented with digital overlays? Will these augmented realities create the new total ‘reality’ for us, something akin to the dystopian view of the Matrix, rendering our current dependence on the smartphone a splash in the ocean? I suspect some will begin to kick back and yearn for a reality free of digital overlays and information overload. Where much as the crackle and weight of a vinyl record becomes a relief after our adventures into streaming and digital music, they will begin to court and seek a retro-reality experience in these information rich digital times. But please don’t get me wrong, I think there’s plenty of benefit to be gained from augmented reality in so many different personal and professional arenas, we just need to embrace these opportunities and not forget that sometimes the real world isn’t that bad after all.

Rob Mettler is a digital business expert at PA Consulting Group