EYES ON THE FUTURE

Opinion SHEPHERD LAUGHLIN
Artwork MATTHIEU DE SCHEPPER

Shepherd Laughlin is a New York–based writer, researcher and strategist with a focus on technology, culture and consumer insight. He has worked as a trend forecaster for J. Walter Thompson Intelligence and the Future Laboratory, reporting on developments in consumer technologies from CES and SXSW.

By now it should be obvious that the future is coming for our eyes. Since long before anyone summoned their spectacles to life with a forced “Ok, Google,” Hollywood has shown us near-future versions of our friends and neighbors staring slack-jawed through digital lenses, eyes glazed over with implants. What will happen to our souls — much less our retinas — when technology brings us worlds so compelling and seductive that the real one simply can’t compete?
 
Augmented reality, or AR, has become such a sci-fi trope that it’s now almost synonymous with dystopia. Perhaps no franchise makes “glasses from hell” seem so inevitable as the British TV series Black Mirror, which returns to the theme frequently with a parade of worst-case scenarios.

As this decade nears its disturbing conclusion, we’ve seen the emergence of an alphabet soup of emerging tech —AR, VR, IoT (the “Internet of Things”), AI, wearables, and more. No one is quite sure how they’ll all work together, or what will happen when they do. Smartphones, after all, at first seemed like a cool toy, but now they feel like the start of a grand social experiment lacking a control group. As present-day political reality looks more and more like a hack TV script, with Twitter and Facebook implicated to varying degrees, it’s no surprise that our thoughts turn dark when we think about the arrival of even more technology.

An opposite perspective holds that whatever comes next, it’s insignificant compared to smartphones. There’s plenty of media hype around these newer technologies that fails to match the reality on the ground. In the case of VR headsets, early sales figures have been so disappointing that commentators are quick to declare that the whole thing was really just a fad destined for failure. But that would be too easy — in fact, it’s exactly what the pundits said after the first tech boom collapsed in an overheated IPO frenzy in the early 2000s. Look where we are now.

I’m reminded of a conference I went to at New York’s New Museum, hastily convened in the heady days of 2016 when Facebook’s Oculus Rift had just started shipping to consumers. Janet Murray, an old hand at prognostication and author of the classic 1990s digital storytelling text Hamlet on the Holodeck, predicted that a hype cycle would indeed unfold. “It’s very important not to pay attention to people saying it’s dead because they didn’t make money from it,” she said. “What you can see is the conjoining of a community of practice, and that lasts.” Art keeps things moving, long after commerce reveals its short attention span.

So, let’s return to augmented reality, and set a course midway between “it’s not happening” and outright hysteria. How does AR stand to impact our lives in the next decade?

Multiple AR glasses will arrive on the market soon, including Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and the first head-mounted display from startup Magic Leap. Early versions are likely to be clunky and expensive, and it will take a while for the pipeline of creator content to catch up to the possibilities of the new devices. So, they won’t take off right away with consumers.

Instead, AR will start to show up anywhere our behavior is already somewhat gamified, especially in industrial settings. Take e-commerce and logistics. Today, thousands of “pickers” work in warehouses to pack the products we idly order on Amazon. The fastest way to do this isn’t always obvious, but AR could layer information over the real world to offer clearer instructions, improving efficiency. In fact, AR could offer real-time, real-world training for a range of occupations and hobbies requiring step-by-step procedures — from flying a plane to building a circuit board.

Eventually, AR will transform gaming, and the process has already started. Consider Merge Cube, a children’s toy that combines a simple plastic box with layered digital visuals viewed through a smartphone, either on its own or as part of an AR/VR headset. Depending on the app you choose, the cube can become a choose your own adventure story, a model of the solar system, or a puzzle to be solved. (If there’s one way to make sure a technology will be seen as unremarkable in 10 years, give it to children today).

As AR escapes into the real world, strange new behaviors will emerge, just as they did with the first AR application to become a mass phenomenon (police received a wave of trespassing reports when Pokémon Go sent people scrambling onto their neighbors’ lawns — gotta catch ‘em all!). As people manipulate virtual objects that only they can see, they’re bound to look silly to the rest of us, waving their hands in the air. This will be surprising at first, like the sight of people talking aloud to unseen Bluetooth ear pieces. With time, though, we’ll get used to it.

Tech writers like to point out that many of the first people to adopt a new technology end up using it to create and distribute — wait for it — porn. But what’s really exciting is the potential for AR to be used in all types of storytelling. The blending of the physical and virtual worlds that AR enables will mean we can transform any venue into a new setting. We’ll be able to re-skin the walls of our homes to become dense jungle foliage, or the panels of a spacecraft. When we combine AR with haptics, wearing clothing that helps us feel the touch of digital characters, we’ll get even closer to the fabled holodecks that geeks have been pining for all these decades. (There’s a porn angle here, too — Google “teledildonics” for an NSFW time).

We’ve long thought of “glasses” as a tool to correct defects in vision, but they’ll soon become much more — in the same way that a “phone” is no longer mostly a device that helps us have voice-based conversations, but instead a kind of all-purpose remote control that mediates our identities and offers instant access to the bulk of human knowledge. AR could mean that glasses offer a similar window onto information, with as-yet unknown augmented powers.
  
The hand-wringing over whether these technologies will ultimately wreak havoc may be understandable given the current news environment, which seems to puncture old myths about technology’s benevolence on a near-daily basis. The same mega-companies at the center of today’s controversies are also the ones that aim to shape the AR worlds of tomorrow. Facebook, even as it weathers the storm surrounding Cambridge Analytica and muddles through questions over its responsibility as a publisher, also owns Oculus, and certainly has designs on the AR space. Google is a primary investor in Magic Leap. And Amazon has launched a tool called Sumerian, which lets non-experts create content for VR, AR, and 3D applications — potentially opening the door to larger creator communities for these platforms in the near future.

But whatever else they may do, this wave of technologies will definitely have a lasting impact on storytelling. In the fashion and design space, stories are how you make an object come alive with meaning — so what could you do when you can make objects literally appear to come alive? For now, leave the dystopia to TV writers and start imagining how augmented reality could become part of your own story.