In some professional contexts, augmented reality is a powerful learning tool, offering unequalled support to engineers, helping them follow complex maintenance scenarios without prior knowledge of a building or infrastructure’s components mapping (as long as a complete digital model of the infrastructure to be serviced has been created).
With powerful image recognition and video processing, augmented reality finds its way into comparative shopping (taking a picture of a good while you are in a retail shop to compare its price at various online venues), or as a marketing tool that animates objects or characters in 3D as if they were present to assist you as a consumer.
An augmented reality 3D demo featuring a Lego character outside its package.
Theoretically, it could also be used to “recognize” and tag unfamiliar faces in the street, by data-mining the web for identifiable pictures (say tagged posts on Facebook or other social media where people willingly identify themselves).
Other intrusive use cases may just be geo-localized adverts popping up every now and then, trying to lure you into new directions. So your view of the world may end-up slightly blurred by all these extras, but the real world still forms the main context for this digitally enhanced navigation.
At least augmented reality makes that promise to turn the real-world into a life-sized game-play (with other human beings still in the way). Although these extra layers of information tag and play with what you see, in principle they do not block your view (although they may absorb enough of your attention to ignore anything not showing up on your digital interface). This is where the real world becomes a little bit more distant.
Observing how muted and apathetic most smartphone users already appear to be when gazing at their screens, sometimes with earphones plugged-in as another layer of blissful ignorance of the analogue world, I never thought there would be a need to further restrict natural human interactions.
Well, if you are already accustomed to gaze uncomfortably at a small screen for video, gaming or whatever other digital content, you may find Avegant’s virtual retinal display an attractive solution.
Relying on Texas Instrument’s recently announced 0.3” HD Tilt & Roll Pixel (TRP) DLP Pico chipset and expected to reach the consumer market by early 2015, Avegant’s Glyph is an audio headset concept embedding two adjustable HD (1280×720 pixels) digital light projectors into the head-band, to form a stereoscopic near-eye display capable of full colour 120Hz 3D video when the head-band is flipped in front of your eyes.
The company funded the development and prototyping runs of its product as a kickstarter project, and very quickly raised USD 1,509,506, over six times its initial funding goal of $250,000. The Glyph will not only occult your sight for over 3-hours’ worth of video (through a single HDMI connection to your smartphone), its noise cancelling capabilities will maintain you fully unaware of your surroundings for up to two days of audio listening.
With built-in head-tracking (using a 9 degrees-of-freedom inertial measurement unit), the Glyph can also find use as a virtual reality helmet, supporting full digital immersion into 3D gaming scenarios.
Now that is the ultimate in digitally augmented autism (DAA for acronym lovers), as the wearer willingly becomes fully muted, fully blinded and fully receptive to machine injunctions. Avegant can always argue that an integrated microphone allows the user to communicate with other players or to take a phone call any time.
But I fear that all this digital wizardry somehow amputates meaningful human interactions. Even worse, as all these digital interfaces become main-stream, they define new codes of conduct, new rules of engagement between individuals, merely coded through whatever application programming interface is available. Is this an improvement over real-life and how much more freedom do you leverage when you submit yourself to such a digital containment?
Sure these sorts of gadgets are not compulsory to wear, and consumers are “free” to consume as long as their spending appetite can be analysed, bended and funnelled through intensive tracking and marketing. But when going all digital makes any spontaneous interaction an awkward proposition, then shouldn’t we question the kind of society that can be built on this?
It is quite an irony that at the same time more people tend to shy away from their immediate surroundings by allegedly getting fully absorbed into their own digital world, more robots and user interfaces are being used in experiments to help kids with severe autism interact with others. Are we entering a never ending loop where the poison is also the cure?
Visit TI at www.ti.com/trp-home
Visit Avegant at www.avegant.com