Augmented reality – the world in subtitles

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century new technologies have enhanced our interaction and understanding of the world around us. History is no longer restricted to a long forgotten past – we barely have time to experience events before we document, blog or tweet their occurrence. But how will such accelerated communication affect our interaction with the space around us? Furthermore, what other new technological developments will improve our lives and allow us to progress as human beings?

One of the most important concepts currently being investigated is the once Sci-fi phenomenon of augmented reality. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Effectively transforming your iPhone or Android phone into a futuristic pair of fantasy goggles, augmented apps are designed to give your life just what it needs – subtitles. Imagine holding your phone up to the entrance of the new Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain. A series of reviews flashes up on the screen with 9 out of 10 people saying it is terrible. Would you still enter?

Allowing your phone to make a decision on contemporary art is one thing, but how could augmented reality really enhance your life? Well it could potentially save it. Imagine getting completely lost in a desolate landscape in complete isolation from other people. Mercedes Bunz recently reported in the Guardian on the Heads Up Navigator. This wacky little app locates the sun and shows you what path it has, and will, take through the sky. Handy when lost in the Sahara desert right? For those a little closer to home try the Acrossair app that will simply locate the nearest tube or bus stop. Unfortunately as yet it does not tell you if your train is delayed.

But why risk the dangers of trans-navigating the globe when you can see it all from home? In a world seemingly fully navigated, our experience of travelling and moving from A to B has altered. Outside the augmented reality realm Google Earth (previously known as EarthViewer) allows viewers to visually navigate the earth’s terrain at the touch of a button. Forget waiting around at an airport for a delayed flight – why not travel the earth from the safety of your own living room? Users can search for addresses for some countries, enter coordinates, or simply use the mouse to browse a location.

One of the key elements of an accelerated documentation of the present is that it affects our approach to the past. A number of enhancements have been made to the standard Google Earth application, including ‘Street View’ (which provides 360° panoramic street-level views) and ‘Ocean’ (which allows users to zoom below the surface of the ocean and view the 3D bathymetry beneath the waves). However, one of the most intriguing developments has been ‘Historical Imagery’, which allows users to traverse back in time and study earlier stages of any place. Great Scott!

For all this time-travelling and space-hopping, the fundamental basis of human relationships with one another has always been face-to-face contact. But what if you can’t even see the person stood in front of you? Babak Parviz, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington is building bionic contact lenses. Enhanced vision is one thing, Parviz wants to incorporate elements of augmented reality into his lenses. So pretty soon diabetic wearers could keep tabs on blood-sugar levels without even needing to prick a finger.

Media industries have cottoned on to the possibilities new technology is offering. Mercedes Bunz notes that “Journalism gathers information from the world around us. Thanks to augmented reality, this information can be displayed where it got picked up – which is especially interesting for event reporting.” The concept of the ‘living magazine’ has already been experimented with by Esquire magazine. The December 2009 issue featured an augmented reality cover in which Robert Downey Jr introduced the magazine’s content.

This all sounds a bit outlandish. Yet should we be fearful of the changing way in which people interpret and make sense of information? Gone are the days when a magazine could be published once a month and be seen as current and up-to-date. The key word now is speed. We have become so used to getting what we want when we want it that anything that appears static becomes uninteresting. Our experience of the world is something more akin to a DJ sampling and splicing tracks together. We take the best bits and scrap the rest.

Is there a concrete example of the digital informing our actions in reality? Take the notion of online supermarket shopping. The way we navigate through an online shop is different from our movement through its physical manifestation. There is no start and finish, no linear directive that we must follow. It’s a little bit like opening a box of chocolates and picking the best ones. In reality there is a certain direction that is laid out for us. We begin with vegetables, move to canned goods and end with the frozen section. Could it be this method is no longer appropriate to the way our brains interpret information?

What does the future hold? The proliferation of information will only increase and surely there will eventually need to be some sort of filter. Yet is that possible? Maybe the upshot will be something far more wide spread than the limited impact technologies such as augmented reality have had so far. In a move away from the individual to the collective, our generalised dubbing of information might eventually lead to a restructuring of the rigid systems our social and political systems abide by. Or maybe we’ll stick to the wacky stuff, with Robert Downey Jr reading us our morning paper and telling us ‘yes, you are lost in the Sahara desert…and unfortunately it is night time…’

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