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Realizing Augmentality

AR iPhone AppAugmented reality (AR) is starting to creep its way into our daily lives. Apps on camera-equipped smartphones let us view the world with additional information at our fingertips; a plethora of metatags and tooltips readily displayed over live-action footage to make our perceived reality only more convenient.

It is an example of virtual reality made real; of the digital world overlapping real-life. The Tupac hologram at this year's Coachella concert and the Vocaloid sensation Miku in Japan are both examples of how something artificially constructed have performed in front of live audiences as a live attraction. Are they not AR, too?

At what point does AR stop being augmented and just become reality? And should this increasing blur between the digital overlaid and the physical be something of concern?

The Digital Revolution Nigh

Concert Holograms, Miku and Tupac

AR in phone apps is convenient. And seeing holographic versions of the deceased and/or fictional performers we adore allows us to enjoy them in a manner otherwise not possible.

There is no doubt that augmented reality is nifty, useful, and cool. But what happens when AR's presence expands into something beyond just a novelty and into something ingrained into everyday life?

There is already talk of holo-versions of John Lennon, Elvis, and other deceased musicians appearing on stage. Would people pay for a concert that consists of nothing but holo-versions of performers?

Would people eschew looking at the world around them in favor of the "information-laden" version of that environment as seen through AR apps?

Augmented reality over ParisCan you imagine a world where everything you look at isn't just "as is," but is now overlaid with information and content? Nothing would be quite the same.

To those eyes not used to AR, that perception would look utterly cluttered with all those content windows. And yet, to an eye born and raised on AR, looking out at the world without all that overlaid content would seem blindsided.

Could AR change the way we perceive the world? Undoubtedly. Will it? Possibly.

So is this a bad thing?

Hold On, Forgot My Phone

Well, let's look at the historical precedent...

The biggest problem with smartphones is that people won't get off of them. And yet, they allow us to summon information at a whim, navigate ourselves around, and record moments within the instant. Drawbacks and boons both they are.

But smartphones aren't AR, right?

Well, pre-smartphones, heck even pre-cellphones, you couldn't call someone across town while walking in the middle of the street. Much less call somebody across the world.

But the definition of augmented reality is something that physically overlays our perception of our environment. A cellphone, smart of not, does not innately do that.

Or hasn't it? The fact that at any moment you can reach down into your pocket and make that phone call is a part of our accepted reality now. Car breaks down; do you hump towards one of those emergency phones along the side of a freeway? Try to tell somebody how much of a pain that was, trying to find one of those blue and yellow boxes, and they'll look at you incredulously and just ask "Why didn't you use a cellphone?"

The ability to be within such close audible contact has integrated itself into our accepted reality, and any obstacle to that comes with at least some jeering shock. The existence of cellphones has augmented our reality to a significant extent, and the world of communication has never been the same.

Need to reach family overseas? No problem; the only barrier in your way is the inconvenience of timezone differences. A trifle compared to what the barriers used to be, waiting weeks on end for any written missives to reach their destination, and then waiting weeks more for the response to arrive.

So yes, people won't stop playing with their smartphones, and as AR grows in prominence and use people will only continue to look into those devices. But by that point, all of us likely will, and the notion of not looking at the world through AR apps would seem as self-defeating as walking out the door without your phone.

So is this "a bad thing?" Is there something wrong with seeing the world through artificial perception, are we severely lacking in our personal experiences by not gazing at our surroundings as they actually are?

Ask a Physicist

Well, considering that all perceived vision is merely what is assembled in the mind, do we ever see the world as it actually is? All reality we see is concocted into whatever sense our brains desire. It's the reason why optical illusions mess with us so poignantly. What we see is not what is, it's merely a version of reality constructed to our convenience. Perhaps even, augmented to some degree?

Sure our brains don't add overlaying layers of content windows, but they alter colors, focus, and depth. We only see in a sliver of the total light spectrum; much of it isn't visible to us.

There is no pink (Minute Physics)Did you know certain colors do not actually exist within the color spectrum but are made entirely by the brain? Every time you look at something pink you're seeing augmented reality.

But no one complains about pink being unreal, fake, and totally artificial. So should the same arguments be raised against digital holographic performers? Sure, there are other areas of debate concerning holo-Tupac and Miku, like ideas of creative copyright, economics, etc. But in terms of 'worth of actuality' if we can accept pink as a part of what's actually in our world, then in time we can do the same for AR to come.

X-Ray GlassesSpeaking of the light spectrum, X-rays are another form of AR when you think about it. An x-ray is a picture of your body. A picture like a polaroid or snapshot, except for one key addition.

The x-ray displays different content; your inside skeletal structure. It is a picture of reality, but not of reality 'normally' perceived. It's augmented reality. Just like an AR app that shows the inside of a building when viewing it from the outside.

Shifting Paradigm Gears

So when does AR become just R? You could say the moment it stops noticeably helping us and just becomes a part of everyday life. But things like colors and phones continue to help us, to augment our everyday lives.

So where is the line drawn?

It's rather bluntly simple. Augmented reality stops being distinct from reality when we stop making the distinction, because we are the only ones who seek to make it.

What do you think about AR and its future influence?

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