The Next Big Reality Show

Seemingly out of nowhere recently the buzz around augmented reality (AR) has been building online. The term itself is about a decade old, and media, gaming and technology specialists and enthusiasts alike have been playing with the concept nearly as long. Recently, fellow futurist Bruce Sterling has been building up an interesting archive of AR apps as they emerge from the pipeline of design studios and academic research at a quickening pace, with a rapidly expanding horizon of use cases and innovations to be surveyed.

What suddenly happened? Well, technology development is seldom sudden in actual reality (shall we call that AcR?) but the advent of the first Android handset from Google and some useful AR development toolkits and browsers like Wikitude and Layar last year helped accelerate interest by giving developers and interested users alike some lightweight and mostly open tools to play with. Experiencing or otherwise being able to see sexy AR applications running on a consumer device has helped grab attention, and like any open digital frontier, the race is off to AR everything. Advertisers are even getting into the AR game, but their impact may be doing more harm than good—a different topic for a different discussion.

Beyond the fun applications, we also have a number of other technological enablers in place that are important: lightweight and flexible "readers" in camera-laden smartphones like the new Android handsets, iPhone, and Nokia smartphones. We have mobile broadband that enables devices to draw on distant data quickly and give us a smooth enough AR experience to be interesting.

Beyond the hardware and software convergence driving AR, something important is happening at the so-called "wetware" level as well, a sort of cognitive convergence. The Internet acclimated us to easy, fast access to global databases of information about our world from fixed locations—walk up to a 'net connected device and the world is at your fingertips, so long as you don't move. Mobile devices have given us access to that information on the go, and location-based services have tied the two together, enabling us to tap data about the place we are.

All the while, we have adapted our expectations, behaviors and demands with increasing rapidity, the pace accelerating with each new step up on the ladder. As we are becoming accustomed to the idea of touching data and content through new interfaces, this change is again accelerating us toward the next step cognitively and behaviorally as well as technologically: expecting to "see" and interact with data mapped onto the world around us seems increasingly natural. We are starting to think about this data being "in" the world around us.

This is why to many people I've spoken to, AR, even in its infancy, seems like an "of course" application instead of a trick of technology created just to show off (back to the advertising-led AR apps again...). To younger technology users, it's surely just a piece of the metaphorical "next release," even if for us older nerds it seems like some long-made promise fulfilled. Even still, we're off and running thinking of new ways to use it, looking to make the data "pop" around us.

The next step in our rapid cognitive evolution will be the interesting one. What will our expectations become when we can see the data around us most of the time, when the world becomes a patchy but informative live interface? Will we think about it as being augmented, or just find another prefix for the world reality (exposed, enhanced, ugly, confusing)? That may depend on the augmented eye of the beholder. It will be interesting to see if AR enhances our attention and knowledge about our local context, and opens up a whole new level of insight into the nearby, but that's for another post as well.