Is augmented reality more than just a gimmick?

Alice Loney - 09.05.2018

Augmented reality (AR) has been the ‘next big thing’ if you listen to marketing buzz for at least five years now, yet it’s a technology that has really struggled to break out of its niche as a cool tech demo to become something more meaningful, more purposeful, something that actually provides a tangible benefit to early adopters.

That being said, it is a technology that has been subtly creeping into our lives in recent years, from Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher in their post-match analysis to the mobile gaming sensation, Pokémon Go. The latter acted as a catalyst that saw Nintendo’s stock price increase by over 200% since July 2016, although the role of its augmented reality mobile phone game should not be overstated – Nintendo only owns 32% of The Pokémon Company, and its newest gaming console, the Switch, is projected the be the fastest selling gaming console in its first year, selling 14m units.

The Pokémon Go craze was arguably the biggest trend of 2016 and resulted in the app being downloaded over 800 million times and generating a staggering $1.2 billion in revenue. The phenomenon was linked to several stampedes in urban areas, as well as reports of some users playing the game getting hurt, or even killed because of their focus on the game above their real world surroundings. Pokémon Go wasn’t the first mobile game to utilise AR, but it did find a sweet spot by combining a hugely popular IP with a new technology in a way that appealed strongly to nostalgic older fans, who crucially, had a disposable income, and that is the key takeaway here. I’m not convinced that AR, even in this instance – its most commercially successful application – is still anything more than a gimmick. Pokémon Go was little more than Snapchat filters or Animoji’s on steroids with a side-dash of FitBit. Contrast this to the ambitions we have for augmented reality and its applications in society, and there is a stark difference.

Both Google and Microsoft want a piece of AR technology, and to be at the forefront of creating the gadgetry that makes the technology we see in films like Minority Report and Iron Man a reality. Google Glass, an optical head-mounted display, designed in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses that displayed information in a smartphone-like, hands-free format and allowed wearers to communicate with the Internet via natural language voice commands, has been already shelved by Google. Concerns about safety (a device constantly emitting carcinogenic radiation you wear on your head), privacy (the ability to surreptitiously film anyone/anything), price ($1,500 to exclusive sign-ups) resigned the ugly device without a demand to the scrapheap before it really even got out of the beta stage.

Whether Microsoft’s own version, HoloLens, can succeed where Google Glass failed is yet to be seen, but both products offer a more meaningful use for augmented reality than capturing cute monsters on a smartphone, although neither product has delivered enough in the way of functionality or desirability to capture more than the attention of the earliest of early adopters.

Despite some of these misfires we are starting to see some of these lofty expectations for AR realised. UK-based technology company Dent Reality is developing a tool that provides real-time information to users as they carry out their daily shop. The tool can guide the user around the store to find specific ingredients for a recipe, even suggest recipes based on the items in your basket and provide stock level information etcetera. The Google Translate app can now use your phone’s camera to instantly translate foreign language text into your chosen language, making navigating Chinese subway stations a problem of the past, while Mercedes are considering ditching printed owner’s manuals in favour of an augmented reality mobile application. All three of these examples use AR technology in ways to make people’s lives simpler, or more efficient, but only represent a small fragment of what Futurists predict for augmented reality.

There have been numerous future-gazing tv shows, movies and short films projecting their visions of an AR-powered future, and two in particular highlight just how all encompassing, and potentially scary, the world can be if reliant on augmented reality technology, while also showcasing where society might take this technology considering current societal obsessions.

Sight, a short futuristic film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo, follows the film’s protagonist before, during and after a date, in which he regularly engages with his AR implants. This leads to some negative consequences and then explores how this relates to privacy issues with this type of bleeding-edge technology.

Hyper Reality, by Keiichi Matsuda, presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media. As with Sight, this short film also explores concerns around the safety and privacy of our conceived tech-laden future.

While both of those versions of our AR-future offer stark visions of the danger of how augmented reality technology could be vulnerable to exploitation, no-one has been quite as bleak as TV series Black Mirror. If you’re a fan of Charlie Brooker’s technology-horror anthology you might be thinking I’m going to reference season three, episode two – Playtest, when an American traveller short on cash signs up to test a revolutionary new gaming system, but soon can’t tell where the game ends and reality begins. However, it’s episode five of the same series, Men Against Fire, that I’m thinking of.

The episode, set in a future with dystopian and post-apocalyptic elements, tells the story of a soldier in a military organisation hunting and exterminating mutants known as “roaches”. Every soldier has a neural implant called MASS that enhances the processing of their senses (including sight, sound, and smell), provides instant data via augmented reality. As the episode progresses the viewers become aware that MASS is being used by the military to dehumanise the appearance of the enemy, allowing soldiers to kill them more efficiently and without remorse, so they can “protect the bloodline” of humanity. These “roaches” were in fact persecuted human beings, and this was part of a global eugenics program. I warned you it was dark! This is obviously an extreme, but it does make you think twice about how we use the new technologies we develop, and also puts a mobile game about catching Pokémon in perspective when we consider what augmented reality can offer.

So, augmented reality!? Plonk a unique logo on your desk and see a BMW drive around. Or brainwash soldiers into committing genocide without physiological consequences. While many of our aspirations for AR-technology are hypothetical, its potential to benefit our quality of life doesn’t require you to be a world-renown theorist to conceive, which leads me to the conclusion in its current guise augmented reality is no more than a gimmick. But of course, it can (and will) be so, so, so much more…