The Impending Social Consequences of Augmented Reality

Mashable

It doesn't do any good to debate when Google’s Project Glass will become ubiquitous, or how many billions of dollars the Augmented Reality industry will make by 2015. You’re missing the point.

Augmented Reality (AR) is not just a technology. It’s a shortcut. Whether we can interact with data through a pair of glasses or contact lenses, the very nature of such technological immediacy will very quickly change human behavior.

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First shortcut? We’ll get our hands back. Imagine your coffee and bagel, no spills -- because you’re checking email on AR-enabled glasses.

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It’s the second shortcut that will be much more profound. Personalization algorithms already guiding your life will turn visual. And facial recognition technology combined with this articulated AR means your rose-colored glasses aren’t just a metaphor -- you’ll only encounter the world you want, the people you want.

There’s a culture clash coming, only we're talking too much tech, not enough tact.

Process Paradigms

“There are consequences to the technology we’re using that we cannot predict,” says Vint Cerf, VP and chief Internet evangelist at Google, most widely known for being one of the inventors of the Internet. “We’re moving into a time we’ve never quite been in before. The information explosion has been with us for a long time. But the ability to process it has been less available to us.”

Machines process faster than humans. While we may have a richer sense of context than our cyber counterparts, we don’t have the same ability to interpret and communicate information on the scale and speed that currently exists for machines today.

As an example, Cerf notes how the wine industry has begun using sensors to monitor plants in real time to learn what nutrients are needed to maximize productivity for the overall vineyard. This maximizes yield and optimizes the quality of the fruit.

Along these lines, Cerf also notes Glooko, a company that manufactures a connector between an insulin monitoring delivery system and a mobile phone. The mobile gets data from the pump and reports a moment-by-moment record of a person’s metabolic condition. "You could not do this in the past, before devices had such portability," notes Cerf. "There is an enormous power when linking these mobile devices to the Internet.”

Along with faster computing power and device portability, it’s important to consider how these examples will manifest in an Augmented Reality world. The initial answer is obvious: It won’t make a difference to the majority of us. Wine owners will utilize portable AR while tending their vines to keep their hands free, and people with diabetes will use a visual prompt to avoid high-glucose items.

But how about the effect on the restaurant owner serving wine to the diabetic? In the future, they’ll likely see a visual marker above diners' heads, alerting them to food allergies. When offering a diabetic a wine list, they'll know not to offer a menu with high-glucose selections, as a point of culinary etiquette.

Our immediate future will focus more on these new cultural paradigms than technical concerns.

Cultural Quandaries

Screenshot courtesy of Girls Around Me

“The data that is being pulled by these technologies and in particular with AR is already public,” notes Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that seeks to advance responsible data practices. “Like the recent controversy over the Girls Around Me app, people get upset when information they may have shared via Facebook or Foursquare gets revealed in a different, but still public, context.”

Polonetsky notes that the stress we’re starting to see in such examples comes when data is portrayed in ways we weren’t expecting. The app Girls Around Me reveals women’s physical locations after inferring they're looking for dates -- whether or not they actually are.

Many of these data-oriented stressors already manifest in our analog world right now. For instance, mortgage data is publically available online. Who’s to stop me from cornering a neighbor at a block party and saying, “I cannot believe how much you paid for your house.”

The fact that humans can't avoid some level of insensitivity is a given. The bigger quandary is what happens when data is revealed in a visual context to people wearing AR technologies, especially when privacy preferences may fail. In the mortgage situation, what's to stop me from insensitively avoiding that neighbor because I’ve prejudged his financial status?

Similar situations will soon overtake driving. Ford’s MyKey technology, available since January 2011, lets parents program cars for teens, so they can’t go over 80 mph and can't listen to the stereo until all seat belts are engaged.

While the features were originally designed for teen safety, the technical framework could certainly be utilized in a different context. Polonetsky anticipates one could use the technology to vet whether or not a parent is worthy of driving children in a car pool. The issue, as with teens, is still about safety. If via my "You Drive Like a Squirrel" AR app, I see you score a two out of ten on safety, my kid doesn’t get in your car.

“We need to figure out what moral or social boundaries we want to draw,” notes Polonetsky. “We don’t know what the next adjustment or ethical framework looks like.”

A Direction for the Data

“Our job is to figure out compelling ways to engage people and improve their well-being through web and mobile apps.” says Chris Cartter, founder and general manager of MeYou Health (a subsidiary of Healthways), a company dedicated to helping people pursue, achieve and maintain a more healthy life by improving their well-being every day.

Most users sign in to the company's well-being product, Daily Challenge, using their Facebook IDs, which lets Cartter and his team quantify how users can support one another more effectively while trying to change behavior.

“We want to learn how to improve the well-being of the entire connected network, a community where people will share deeply personal health related information if there is genuine context and trust," says Cartter.

This environment could easily be possible in an AR-enabled world. People walking down the street could virtually reveal their health status, how it’s trending up and down. “And while there may eventually be facial recognition (via AR) for a billion people on the planet, I may only want to reveal my well-being score to a small selection of my Facebook friends,” he adds.

But the precedent of Girls Around Me brings up an important question: How can we fully protect the original intention of any of our data? What will likely evolve is a visual taxonomy where people can set how they’re seen or perceived, via AR applications that work in conjunction with platforms like Google Glass.

An example of this is CacheTown, an AR technology initially being used to help retailers project offers for products or services in the virtual arena. But CEO and founder Andrew Couch is aware of the larger concerns of privacy; the company is currently building what is essentially a Visual Virus Protection system where users can determine how they’re projected in an augmented world.

“Our assumption is that privacy will be the No. 1 area people may abuse within the Augmented Reality space," says Couch. "When people are able to enhance the perception of the world around them, they also need to be provided with a responsible mindset for these new interactions.”

Couch is also working on a guide to ethics surrounding Augmented Reality that addresses these privacy concerns.

Robot Reflections

Image via iStockphoto, patrickheagney

“We tend to think about the future as something we don’t have control over. We need to create a future that we want to be a part of,” says Ramona Pringle, a faculty member at Ryerson University in Toronto, as well as host and producer of Rdigitalife, an online series that explores the relationships between humans and technology. She predicts that man and machine will inevitably merge on various levels, but insists that we need to discuss the ethics and culture of these advances over and above the technology itself.

While the idea of implanting technology in our bodies or wearing an AR-enabled contact lens tends to make most people uncomfortable, Pringle points out that we’re used to the idea of a nose job, a form of trading in our uniquely human attributes for “brand features” that reflect a specific perception of beauty. Again, these questions are not about technology, but of culture and context.

Within Rdigitalife, Pringle also researches artificial intelligence, specifically whether people could fall in love with inanimate objects, or robots. While this may seem far-fetched, ask yourself how much time you stare at your mobile screen, compared to the faces of your loved ones. And as a parent, have you found yourself telling your kids to turn off the TV while you’re sending a text or email? How will that behavior change when the virtual world permeates your vision and surroundings? Will there be a time when you program your preferences to avoid seeing loved ones altogether, if you’re busy or preoccupied?

It’s this cultural paradigm Pringle most wants to address. “It’s the responsibility of every citizen to be a part of this conversation involving technology," she says. "You can’t wake up in 20 years and say, ‘I didn’t think this would happen.’”

The Vocabulary of Vision

“I’m not trying to sell technology just so people will use it. I want people to spend less time tasking so they can create more value with their lives,” says Christopher Rezendes, founder and president of INEX Advisors, which helps institutions understand how they can benefit from the deployment of Internet of Things, or M2M (machine-to-machine) solutions.

For someone so immersed in what many would call futuristic technologies, Rezendes actually points out networked technology has existed for years. His focus is on making intelligent and meaningful connections for people utilizing technology, versus moving forward with emerging media simply because they exist. He says, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We need to be intentional.”

He also points out that as the world becomes more interconnected, by definition, we’ll need to be more connected as communities. This isn’t an altruistic or socialist view of the future – it’s about business and functional operability.

Citing the idea of self-driving cars, Rezendes points out, “How can anyone release products that will hurt partners, if you’re a single entity in a tightly connected commercial chain? We won’t be able to operate independently of our upstream or downstream experience partners.”

Now consider this physical supply chain in the context of seeing one another’s well-being, needs or talents displayed via visualizations, viewable through lenses outfitted with AR. How will we perceive each other in the near future, beyond our physical appearances? How will our positive and negative traits combine to form a visualization that instantly defines who we are?

One thing that will change, according to Rezendes: our vocabulary. “I think in 10 years we’ll be actively working to redefine the citizen to stop calling them consumers. The term is outmoded and refers to a time when people’s primary value came from gathering goods or wealth."

Rezendes has a vision for the future citizen of the connected world, where our focus can widen to better provide value in a more holistic sense of a human supply chain: “We’re going to call people creators.”

Talk or Tunnel

Some say we’re losing serendipity, that the filters and personalization algorithms narrow our choices so we stop experiencing decisions we’ve dismissed in the past. But with AR, this form of tunnel vision will become literal.

I hope you agree, and I look forward to seeing you in the future. But evidently, that's up to you.

Click here to view the gallery: Top Robots of 2012

Image via Mathew Sumner/Stringer/Getty Images News

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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