We can Imagine it for you, Wholesale

Will Wiles of Icon Magazine spent some time talking about augmented reality, Tron, and the fictional source of many design and technological innovations on his blog. I couldn’t stop thinking about the last two paragraphs.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Raymond Larose

Returning to augmented reality, there is of course a great risk that it will flop, just as the first wave of virtual reality did in the 1990s. I remember being taken to the Trocadero Centre to try out the “Virtuality” machines installed there — the first in the UK. I remember it clearly because it was such a huge disappointment. AR strikes me as massively more practical, but no matter how sophisticated the technology, it still comes up against a fixed limitation — the human arm. Are people going to walk around holding up their mobile phones to navigate the world?

Rationally, I’d say no, but then I wouldn’t have guessed that people would experience real-life events through the tiny screen on their digital cameras or even their mobile phones — and they do, preferring to see an event through a technological surrogate. I wouldn’t have guessed that people would trust the information on their Sat Nav screen over the evidence of their own eyes and instincts, but they do. There’s no guessing what people might prefer to delegate to gadgetry.

Will Wiles — The Unreal Deal

The technological surrogates idea so interesting. I keep thinking about the image of the Obama’s first dance and all the people recording it, themselves being recorded. Ditto for all those people who have been on vacation, seeing the whole thing through the frame of a Polaroid/Camcorder/Flip/iPod Nano. Extra points for the parents ruining their kids’ fidgety fun by yelling at them to pose and smile when all the kids want to do is LOOK at the thing they are posing in front of.

Then I sheepishly think of the GBs of photos on my drive. It’s not that difficult to imagine myself getting distracted enough to make the mistake of Wiles’ Sat Nav driver. It’s not that I don’t trust my senses so much as I don’t trust my memory of directions. Not that I try to remember them much anymore.

A mobile phone with a good notes and maps application makes remembering seem obsolete. I can just look it up. I’ll Google it. I’m pretty sure I wrote it down, somewhere…

I feel like camera phones and GPS navigators are two sides of the same coin: the fear of forgetting. Cameras say, “We will capture this event and keep care of it.” Garmin says, “I will tell you where the path is, you don’t need to write down the directions.” This one thing is so important that it outweighs the many ways in which these devices are terrible.

New technology doesn’t win because it’s so much better than what came before. It wins because some subset of what it does is SO COMPELLING that we put up with the many ways in which using it is worse than the older alternatives. A real map is much, much better than Google maps in presentation, ease of note-taking, ability to quickly scan around, and layers of data available. But they are expensive, it’s hard to carry a comprehensive set, they don’t show you where you are, and they can’t be searched.

I agree with Wiles that the seeds of the future are planted in the stories that people grow up with. The second half of the notion has to be our powerful ability to rewrite expectations. We say that Stephenson, Gibson and Sterling et al. invented cyberspace which led to the Internet. But this thing both fulfils and falls terribly short of the consensual hallucinations that drove the imagination of the people doing the work that led to the Internet that we ended up with.

Where augmented reality apps are likely to get over the hump into ubiquity is when they figure out what it is that they can do that we didn’t realize we wanted them to do, and ruthlessly implement that.