What Happens When Augmented Reality Becomes Actual Reality?

Our lives, and the lives of others, exist within and beyond the screen. For decades now, the ways in which we interact with and learn about the world have increasingly involved a screen within a frame. Our social lives and identities have become defined by pearlescent glowing squares, the persona and life-experience of an at-will expression and, often, construction.

But what happens when we dissolve the frame until the screen becomes the very world around us? The power we have to control the information we’re given in the digital realm becomes a power we have in the real. The already dimming line between our real lives and our digital lives disappears.

Augmented reality is the solvent destined to dissolve our frames. It’s a technology that alters one’s ongoing perception of real-world environments with computer-generated visual overlays and other sensory feedback using our phone cameras, glasses, and even contact lenses or surgical implants. In other words, it superimposes images in our physical world.

On the surface, it seems like a superficial, entertaining technology. Pokemon Go’s digital overlay, seeing a Pokemon in any physical space your phone’s camera points to, is nifty but hardly transformative. Google Glass gave us a heads-up-display and hands-free functions. SnapChat is arguably the most popular augmented reality tech with its delightful and hilarious filters. It’s all very entertaining, but the real capability goes far beyond catching ‘em all in the park and big-mouth face mutations.

Other applications run the gamut, guaranteeing the technology will change the way we live our lives in an even larger magnitude than computers, the Internet, and phones did. It promises to change the way we work, allowing construction workers to see through walls or architects to envision an entire 3D building on-site. Our cars will have heads-up displays on our windshields, and our Google Maps’ directions will display right on the street itself. Eventually, we’ll alter the way we appear to others, replacing blemishes with perfect skin or even digitally displayed tattoos.

What’s truly remarkable (and terrifying) is the way this technology allows us to alter perception.

As consumers, we could easily have the power to edit out or replace the things in the world we don’t want to see, like graffiti or a shabby home. Corporations may place ads anywhere, with digital billboards floating above our city skylines or virtual flyers flitting like ghosts along our walkways and streets. Ad Blocker may become more than a convenience as information overload becomes a constant danger in the new world.

Nothing evokes this more than designer Keiichi Matsuda’s short film, Hyper-Reality, which gives us a glimpse of an over-saturated, digitally augmented future. Hackers and terrorists could cause immeasurable damage by editing our realities: altering traffic lights, hiding real hazards and creating fake ones, using our locations and cameras to gather information, and/or masking or replacing our position and activities.

Someone can place us somewhere we’re not. What we see with our eyes may no longer stand as irrefutable evidence of anything at all.

Augmented reality tech has the potential to shape our understanding of the world in the same way our search engine algorithms have the potential to limit our knowledge through a phenomenon called the filter bubble. Internet activist Eli Pariser’s filter bubble already influences the information readily available to us on our phones and computers in search engines like Google. Everything we like in our social media — the music we favorite, our online purchases, and the sites we regularly visit — influence the ads and search engine results we get daily. It’s a convenience for us, but it also means we need to dig deeper if we want to get to sources we wouldn’t normally access or that don’t cater to our existing tastes and viewpoints.

When we introduce augmented reality the filter bubble becomes even more alarming. As the filter bubble encompasses the reality beyond screens, the world we see through augmented reality becomes our ideal… but that means it’s all that we see.

When there’s nothing in the world we perceive that we haven’t already decided we’re okay seeing or hearing, then what happens to us? Where does our motivation come from to continue improving that world? What will happen to our sense of empathy when we edit out all the things in our lives that demand it — when the people who truly deserve it are no longer visible?

In a worst-case scenario, augmented reality could lead to a world shrinkage on the individual level, trapping us in ideal worlds we erect for ourselves.         

What, after all, is real when our perceptions are persistently constructed? We are destined for theorist Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal, for which Matsuda’s aforementioned short is named; a world of simulacra — representations and copies and constructs — a reality in which the virtual and physical dissolve, like our frames, into something new. Then, when we take off our glasses or contact lenses, when we turn off our retina implants, what will we see?

A world that, for us, might not be so real anymore.

Jeremiah French spends most of his time dissecting and consuming human-built worlds in multimedia, from written fiction to simulated spaces. When he isn’t doing that, he’s making his own in podcast and print. Occasionally he remembers that he’s a musician, so he’ll do that too. Check out his musings on interactive entertainment at drunkenmarmoset.com, and his primary action-fantasy podcast Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished anywhere podcasts are available.

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