The augmented reality we ended up with is better than we imagined (draft)

We grew up with this idea that augmented reality would be everywhere. We imagined persistent virtual advertisements burned into our eyes constantly. However things have turned out to be a lot less intrusive than that and a lot better than the screens that preceded them. Augmented reality turned out to be a coating of digital information and tools on the world.

There was a time when screens were everywhere and they gave us little incentive to move about. From as early as I can remember I used to carry a tablet with me wherever I went. My parents were glued to their phones. I loved getting lost in open world games and my parents would fill their downtime digging for information on socials and news sites. I grew to resent digging about on screens like that. I was frustrated that older people used to think they could somehow stay on top of an endless stream of information. Information that was for the most part useless to anyone except the people whose wealth depended on the attention.

As I grew I learned open world games were the kids version of what my parents were hooked on. I grew out of games because they felt like a time drain—I achieved very little outside of the world of the game. Yet when my time came to hook into email and chat streams for my university studies and later work, I came to learn it was all the same. Unlike my parents who weren't born into holding a screen I got sick of the habit a whole lot sooner.

I realised screens were pacifiers for our anxieties. There was a time in the past when screens made a lot of work done on paper and knowledge held in books redundant. Information was liberated as a result. But at some point this easy to access information left us little desire to find it ourselves through physical exploration. Rather than getting lost in the world we got lost in the digital, and we could get lost in the digital anywhere anytime. It was so much easier, or at least it felt that way.

In defiance of people around me who would pull out their smartphones anytime they felt bored I would let myself get bored. The hole otherwise filled by the screen was occupied by my imagination. I would imagine swiping others' glass coated phones from their hands and juggling them. I wondered what could possibly be so important on a screen in a room full of people within earshot and then it dawned on me:

When people were on their own they would sit and gaze on a window into a world that is unaware of what they are doing. The digital screen world would pass no judgement if they preferred to scroll through things they liked, or to construct a virtual image of their personality on a social network instead of addressing their pain in reality. Pain is the mechanism of their conscience that tells them something is wrong and it only leaves them alone when the cause is addressed or time has healed the memory of it. It is the modern reflex to numb pain as soon as possible with something to ingest, go to do, read or watch as there are abundant resources to do so. To do this persistently on pain that comes from the same place over and over neglects its cause and the growth that would come from listening to it.

It seemed to me that the digital screens were worlds we could use to shield ourselves from the pains associated to feeling scrutinised. The irony was no one spent that much time judging others, especially people occupied by their screens. It was mutual social disconnection in the guise of scathing disinterest. Humans are simple enough to engage if they let themselves lock eyes and assume the posture that they are willing to listen and talk. Few have the courage to disturb someone that looks like they are always busy.

The funny thing is these problems were only ever accentuated by the screens and never the cause for them. It took me years to see digital screens for what they were. A painkiller that can be overused.

I eventually learned to be aware when the screen was giving me superfluous information. I learned to be engaged. I stopped playing video games to avoid social activities. I stopped posting on socials when I realised I was doing it for validation. I did not text someone when I knew I could connect more closely to them with a call. I did not check up on news sites constantly when I knew I could learn something pragmatically useful instead.

If I could summarise the problem with digital screens is that they set no limit and did very little to remind you of your reality outside of them. This improved when augmented reality glasses became mainstream. I learned that they discreetly incentivised movement and sharing. The glasses worked best when you didn't try to use them like a smartphone, and the best glasses were anything but what technologically preceded them.

When I tried my first glasses I thought they were broken until I lifted up my arms and hands. I didn't have any. It was the interface. The designers made it work so the lens you had on dictated the form of your body and your augmented abilities. They decided you didn't need to see your fingers and arms. They knew you could learn to move your limbs to suit the 'arms' you got with the lens you chose to view the world with. It was unsettling to begin with but made complete sense with a bit of practice.

My first lenses were for exploring nature. They were 'tendril', 'x-ray' and 'frisbee'. Just thinking about them fills me with joy because they were so refreshing. The lens names give away a bit of what you become and they let you explore through their own perspective. You can sandwich any lenses to combine perspectives to yield additional abilities. It turns lenses which are a bit of a bore on their own into quite lush experiences.

'Tendril' transforms your arms into extendable plant-like tendrils and the dexterity of your fingers swing them around in almost any direction with your arms to help swing and do any pulling and pushing. Since you can grab anything it acts like a traditional screen cursor or touchscreen interface but for the world.

Anything you can get a hold of through any lens can be queried or triggered. You can capture anything you see for analysis or to perform an action like flicking a switch. You can enhance vision with lenses that allow new kinds of visual access like 'x-ray' and 'frisbee' but there is also 'map', 'recall', 'scope' and more. For now I'll stick to talking about my first lenses.

'Tendril' got me a date the first time I put it on. In the early days it wasn't too creepy do something like stretch over a tendril shaped into a heart and wave it in front of someone you fancied. It is a pretty played trick now that is borderline annoying but the weirdness and surprise worked at the time to get the ball rolling. Today you can filter strangers and the actions performed through their lenses.

'X-ray' as the name suggests lets you see through physical layers. It doesn't fulfil childish dreams of seeing people in their underwear but it is great for filtering out walls created by buildings or surfaces like floors and terrain. It helps you navigate by removing visual obstacles. If you are on a city street you can look straight through buildings and see distant mountains or the pipes underneath you. I find it useful for writing out my shopping list without going to my kitchen to see what I need to get.

'Frisbee' lets you fly short distances. Like a frisbee you can throw it at a speed and angle to achieve a particular flight path. Once in flight you can look from it, without the nauseating spin of course. Arguably this lens is a bit more of a novelty for amateur drone flying. It allows drone flying on a short pre-defined path which keeps them from causing issues. However you can combine the lens with 'tendril' to suspend flight by shooting a lasso at something stationary. Combining 'x-ray' allows you to take in all kinds of views.

The lenses are like virtual jewellery. They are very well crafted and each one is precious, including 'frisbee' which you can just use as a toy. It is easy to collect and summon combinations of lenses and use them for different situations. You can easily meet others doing different things with their lenses and trade advice. People willingly share their activity publicly for the excuse to show off new combos. There are also people skilled and passionate enough that they program their own hobby lenses. You can run a festival from a well made lens with all kinds of costumes, musical instruments, sculptures, landscapes and even creatures.

The great thing about lenses over apps on screens is they use the physical world and your body as its base. You can not fully use 'tendril' sitting down and invariably your perspective and actions are made public as your body morphs. If you have 'tendril' on and are using it to capture information outdoors it is a whole lot more visible to others than pointing a smartphone camera and pressing a button. You feel connected to what others are doing digitally as if they are doing something physical like kitesurfing. Even with your glasses off you can guess what people are doing from their movement alone.

The digital world of today is not networked webpages, documents, files and folders viewed from a personalised window. Digital and physical reality are now one where there are no window like screens but only lenses to augment human perspectives, abilities and appearance. You can still get carried away with your glasses on but the design of this augmented reality works by encouraging movement and sharing experiences together.

This draft speculative fiction is inspired by the author's PhD research Bridging the Virtual and Physical: from Screens to Costume see the PhD exegesis and exhibition. Comments are welcome, contact me.

26 February 2020