Friday, October 17, 2008

Dreams come true? If you happen to be a marketer, yes.

How is a writer to keep up?  Last Wednesday, as I'm preparing to (fail to) fall into REM, I have a vivid little hallucination: a friend of mine is standing in front of me; I lift an iPhone so that it obscures my view of him, but instead the phone's viewscreen forms a virtual "window", allowing me to see his digitally augmented self, complete with goofy purple foam coat and Dr. Seuss-style hat.

The very next morning, a friend emails me an article entitled Augmented Reality Makes Commercial Headway, complete with a picture of a customer holding up a iPaq to view the video overlay on top of an otherwise flat advertisement.

This is not a new idea, though the actual implementation is.  The best recent vision of augmented reality that I can think of is Vinge's Rainbow's End, an excellent novel about the future of information, sociopolitical control, and a library's transformation into a walking colossus.  In Rainbow's End, overlays are a constant and highly important addition to reality; they allow in-groups to recognize each other and enemy tribes, convey realtime information about objects near and far, and add the design element to surroundings that are otherwise mundane.

What makes Vinge's world endearing is not simply the extent to which the technology has developed and pervaded (indeed, this could be quite scary if applied wrongly); rather, we become absorbed because the power to create these augmented realities is in the hands of the people.  Various factions struggle for power in his novel, but each faction has a set of real-world citizens that we can identify with.  Even his most powerful military leaders are individuals, and whether we love or hate them, we can see them.

My fear for the real world, though, is that like so much of the first world, power will remain in the hands of faceless corporations.  Go on: scowl, snort your coffee, mutter whatever you like about "those hippie radicals" -- then stop and think for a minute.  How many times have you called up you cell phone provider and been put on hold, only to be connected via VoIP to a talking head in another country?  When did you last speak, face-to-face, with someone who actually had the power to change the policies of the telecom company he worked for?

When we consider technologies, such as augmented reality, which rely heavily on networks, marketing, and mass processing, we must remember that the majority of the power is already invested in the corporate and political infrastructure of only a few large companies.  These companies have necessarily self-interested policies; their practices are geared toward expansion and profit.  Even at the highest levels, it is difficult for an individual to consider any other motive; a manager can always be fired by a superior; a CEO can be removed by the board or the stockholders; the stockholders have, by definition, only profit in mind.  That's why they (we!) own stock.

So, we can expect the first widespread (aka not toy-project) developments in augmented reality to be commercially driven, and we are beginning to see just that.  Soon we'll have ad-blockers on our iPhones just to keep them from interrupting our driving directions with a video streaming from the Citgo sign we just passed.

The real question then becomes whether the YouTubers, the Bloggers, the creative individuals of the world will step up to the plate.  Creating interesting and useful augmentations of reality takes time and effort.  Why are half the videos on YouTube created by bored teenagers?  Because they're bored!  The rest of us have fallen into the corporate routine; our creative energy sapped by the 9-to-5, we stumble home and collapse in front of the idiot box.

But this time, if we creative and talented adults slack off, there will be a much bigger price to pay than an Interweb full of videos showcasing "mah c00l3st Mario-Kart gamez evar", interleaved with 30-second spots promoting Diet Coke and Viagra -- because augmented reality won't be something we can put back in the box, or avoid by browsing only to the websites we like.  Augmentation will invade the"real world" in an unavoidable way very soon.

Consider, for example: someday GPS will become so pervasive that the department of public works will no longer maintain street signs; without digital input, you'll be lost.  If the company which provides the GPS service decides to inject advertisements ("take the next right, and consider stopping for a Big Mac before continuing"), every single person on the road will be at their exploitive mercy.

Once critical information about the things around us is only available through digital channels, the common man will be irrevocably immersed in a world he cannot filter or avoid.

That isn't a world I want to live in, and it scares me even more that I won't be able to opt-out.

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