At what point does your everyday computing device turn you into a cybernetic organism? We are on the cusp of a new revolution, ushering in an age of head-mounted computing and augmented reality. The most successful wearable computers won’t just be smartphones strapped to your head or arm. They will need to balance usefulness with an ability to run unnoticed throughout most of the day. Think of it as subconscious computing.
Many of us already carry a smartphone at all times, collecting pictures, videos and notes and connecting to the Internet to answer almost any question in real time. Services such as Siri make human/computer interactions even more intimate, and Google Now knows the answers we want before we even ask a question. Integrating augmented reality will add a digital information layer on top of the real world, providing an enhanced version of recognized images. Looking through the lens of an augmented reality device would provide real-time information overlaid on top of actual images, affording abilities akin to cyborgs.
The most high-profile example of this new frontier is Google’s Project Glass. The search giant will likely be the first to market with the Glass Explorer Edition, available to developers in 2013, but there are numerous companies watching closely, waiting to make their own entry into the wearable marketplace. This revolution won’t just change the way we interact with computers, but with each other.
What is a Cyborg?
Today’s technology may be inching us closer and closer to cyborgism, giving us superhuman abilities catered by a constant electronic connection. While this feat is not yet performed by mechanical devices built into our bodies, pulling out a smartphone for a quick Google search provides us with an information database beyond our natural abilities.
[More: Top 10 Most Famous Cyborgs]
Smartphones are often with us from the moment we wake up until we head to bed, when it rests on the nightstand no more than 12 inches from our head. Always-available electronics, the cyborg’s tool-of-the-trade, may already be here. “I sort of consider my iPhone a wearable computing device,” said Lee Tien, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s with me all the time.”
With the availability of electronics and the ever-increasing role devices play in our everyday lives, it’s important to avoid information overload. “Few people enjoy being continuously connected throughout their waking hours,” said Aapo Markkanen of ABI Research. “There will always be a number of situations where the [augmented reality] devices must be switched off or put on some sort of passive mode.”
Steve Mann, a cyborg pioneer who has been wearing head-mounted computers for the better part of 30 years, has come to similar conclusions. “Augmented reality will not work,” Mann said. “We simply can’t take in more than we already do. Therefore, what is required is mediated reality.”
Google First, Apple Next?
Electronics manufacturers want to integrate themselves even further into the lives of their consumers, beyond users’ current attachment to their smartphones and tablets. Google has publicly revealed Google Glasses, a wearable computer that puts a small display discreetly above the wearer’s right eye.
Apple, like Google, also holds patents relating to augmented reality. As usual, Apple is remaining completely silent about any plans to enter the market, but has been steadily filing patents relating to heads-up displays and augmented reality software for years. One patent, filed by Apple in 2006, outlines the “peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays,” describing how perimetric light may enhance the user experience for displays positioned directly in front of the eye. There is no doubt that Apple will be keeping a close eye on the strengths and weaknesses of Google’s Project Glass.
Apple and Google aren’t the only ones working on head-mounted display devices; Oakley and Olympus (pictured below) both have their own versions that put digital information directly in front of the eye. Both of these devices, however, require a Bluetooth connection to a compatible smartphone or tablet rather than integrating a stand-alone augmented reality operating system directly into the device.
Creating the ideal hardware is only half the battle; the software that runs on these augmented reality devices is also of crucial importance. Creating applications that seamlessly blend the real world with a digital world is key to successful cyborgism. “The [companies] that master image recognition that is based on natural features...have an inside track here,” said ABI Research’s Markkanen. He cited companies such as Qualcomm’s Vuforia, HP’s Aurasma, metaio and Total Immersion as leaders in the field of augmented reality applications.
Both hardware and software together will be of crucial importance in order to design a wearable computer that’s appealing to the general public. “You can address [these challenges] on the hardware side by maximizing the comfort level,” Markkanen said. Battery life and device weight will determine whether these head-mounted displays will remain viable after hours of use.
Constant visual alerts can be equally perturbing. Since augmented reality will respond to location and environment, there’s an opportunity for numerous alerts beyond phone calls and text messages. “Software [will need to] develop filters that prevent information overload,” argues Markkanen.
While being able to comment on your friend’s Facebook update without touching your phone is cool, wearable computing will need more practical applications before the masses embrace it. Shopping is just one example.
IKEA has integrated augmented reality into its 2013 catalog, allowing users to browse and interact with additional content by looking at specific pages through the screen of their smartphones. Blank walls in the catalog’s pictures will fill with shelves of explorable items and product commercials.
“I see this next wave [of augmented reality advancements] consisting mainly of smartphone apps,” said Markkanen. “Educational apps aimed at children [is] a future growth area.” These apps use the smartphone’s camera to recognize objects and then replace or augment information on top of the image.
Think of the possibilities. Textbooks will become media-rich learning tools, with dinosaurs leaping off the page and walking around the desk during a chapter on the Mesozoic Era. Students can then go back in time by pointing their heads-up display at a landscape and watch volcanoes erupt as ancient animals explore the real terrain in front of them.
Both advertisers and consumers can also benefit from the seamless integration of digital information. Movie posters can instantly become movie trailers. Magazine ads will allow you to interact with products by exploring a 3D model sitting on the page. Customizing and ordering can be as simple as nodding.
There is also the potential for large medical advancements from augmented reality research. Technology can triumph in realms where biology fails. We already have pacemakers and cochlear implants providing assistance when heart rates and hearing decline and future augmented reality innovations can help in other areas of need. Failing memory may be improved by a head-mounted device, which records the surrounding world and forms digital memories for the user.
Google has already expressed its vision of the future in a video entitled “Project Glass: One day...” In the video, we experience an average day through the eyes of a future Project Glass user. We’re able to check the weather by simply looking at the window, quickly viewing the forecast and chance of rain. Turn-by-turn navigation happens on-the-fly as we’re walking down the street, alerting us to train delays and offering route suggestions.
Early innovations, however, may occur in professional sectors before becoming viable in consumer electronics. “There are a lot of professions that could benefit from hands-free augmented reality,” said Markkanen. “The cost of acquiring...the initial expensive eyewear won’t be as prohibitive as in the consumer market.”
Walking Time Bombs?
Our current technology can be dangerous, distracting us from the outside world and potentially landing us in harm’s way. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, walking and using a cellphone or other handheld electronic device landed an estimated 1,100 people in the hospital this past year, and this number is most likely under-reported.
Eric M. Lamberg, clinical associate professor at Stony Brook University, performed a study with 33 men and women, exploring the effects of texting while walking. Participants had an average of 61 percent deviation from the straight path they attempted to walk and a 13 percent increase in the distance traveled.
Head-mounted displays and augmented reality software will need to serve information without distracting the user from their daily lives. “Augmented reality apps will have to be contextually aware,” said Markkanen, citing the importance for these devices to sense our location and avoid distracting us at potentially dangerous moments.
“The more immersive the technology is, the more this can lead to distraction from the primary task,” Lamberg said. If walking is the primary task while using a heads-up display, less invasive designs are going to prove the safest.
But head-mounted displays have the potential to be even more distracting, depending on the hardware design. Once augmented reality devices gain popularity, there could be an influx of cheap imitation devices willing to sacrifice user experience to shave costs.
Users may not realize they’re increasing their risk of injury by purchasing a lower priced device. The ability to remain aware of one’s surroundings while interacting with alternate reality devices is crucial to user safety.
Maintaining Privacy … and Civility
Wearable computing faces some serious challenges that go well beyond safety. “Wearable computing has sort of democratized surveillance in some ways,” warned Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s like suddenly realizing everyone is wearing a wire. A wire with a camera.
“There is the assumption that our surroundings are not bugged, the idea that wherever you go, it’s the norm that it isn’t being viewed by others remotely or recorded,” continued Tien. “Wearable computing has completely changed that.”
It remains to be seen whether or not people’s behavior will change when they’re aware of being constantly recorded. Mann isn’t concerned: “We’ll have to redefine what ‘recording’ means,” he said. “As we replace our aging minds with computers, the distinction [between being recorded and not] will disappear.”
This transition, however, may not be smooth. Mann said he was assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s earlier this year. According to Mann, he and his family were sitting at a table, enjoying their food, when an employee forcibly tried to remove Mann’s head-mounted augmented reality device, which cannot be removed without tools.
Mann claims that his device does not permanently store images captured by the front-facing camera, but alleged perpetrators may have been incensed by the possibility of being recorded. “There’s a real sense that there’s an invasion of privacy [when being recorded],” said Tien.
Mann, however, believes most of the resistance faced by early adopters will come from those in positions of power. “I think there will certainly be push-back, especially among those who benefit from the one-sided world of surveillance [such as] corrupt officials or wrongdoers further up the ‘rungs’ of the ‘social ladder of life.’”
Transitioning from surveillance, often performed by those in positions of power, to sousveillance, or personal monitoring and recording, may completely alter societal structure. Citizens may come to appreciate the accountability afforded when surveillance becomes democratized and both recorders and recordees will be held accountable for their actions.
Super Self or Lost Self?
As potentially useful as heads-up computers can be, a constant stream of information may be overwhelming. Markkanen is specifically concerned about information overload and connectivity fatigue. “Augmented reality is more...‘in-your-face’ than anything we’re using now, so I can easily see how interacting with it for extended periods of time could make people feel rather fed up.” It will be important to flip the “off” switch once in awhile.
Disconnecting, however, may not be that easy. Experts are already concerned that an addiction to technology is having a negative psychological impact, causing anxiety when a device isn’t readily accessible.
“What we are finding now is that people are becoming obsessed with their smartphones and checking them very often,” said Dr. Larry Rosen, professor and past chairman of psychology at California State University and author of “iDisorder.” “Most teens and young adults check every 15 minutes or less.”
The U.K. Post Office commissioned a 2008 research study that coined the term “nomophobia,” short for “no mobile phobia,” to describe the stress and panic arising from a lack of mobile connectivity. The study found that 53 percent of mobile phone users developed significant anxiety when their phone was lost, out of network coverage or out of battery. The first Android mobile-operating system was released later that year and, paired with the iPhone, has only increased technological dependence.
“Psychologically, [device] dependence is manifested as anxiety which we can only quell by checking in constantly,” continued Rosen. “If we are wearing glasses that allow us to [check our devices] on the fly without even pulling our phone out of our pocket or purse this will only exacerbate...our obsessive use of devices.”
But Rosen doesn’t believe that we’re doomed to a future filled with obsessive distraction and anxiety. Society has a tendency to obsess over new technology before swinging, like a pendulum, back toward healthier usage.
“I suspect that we will be swinging that pendulum back and forth often as new technologies penetrate society so rapidly,” he said. “It is all a process, and the more we are aware of our behavior the better we will be able to cope and thrive.”
Maybe, instead of distracting us, augmented reality glasses will unlock a clearer world, much like putting on a prescription pair of glasses. “Once a person can see well, they discover what it is like to see well,” said Mann. It’s an awareness, not reliance, he expressed, and augmented reality may provide technological value different than we’ve ever experienced: in a completely natural format.
As we enter this new age of wearable technology and augmented reality, it’s important to maintain a sense of self, separate from the companies who vie to put information directly in front of our eyes.
“I think it is important that people’s minds and bodies remain their own,” said Mann. This may be the chief struggle as we edge closer to cyborgism.