Designing the Best AR for Humanity

This post is a continuation of the VR Book Club Series. Read Part 1 here.

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There I was in the basement offices of HTC in Beijing, China. Groups of people from around the world had demos set up around the room, ready to pitch their virtual and augmented reality companies to the Asain investors making their way from booth to booth. Many applied to be here but only a few us, about 30 companies made the final cut. It was there in China that I experienced my first ever augmented reality…

“We learn about the world through stories. A great story is visceral; it ignites, evokes, and stirs. It sparks a reaction and a response” (67). That’s what Helen Papagiannis wants to inspire in those of us who build and experience augmented reality. The tech on its own is cool but it’s the story that we tell through it that gives augmented reality value.

In Augmented Human, Papagiannis creates a world where human and technology interact seamlessly. Augmented reality, empowered by artificial intelligence, works in the background of our lives to makes decisions, diagnose, assist, and interact with that which we don’t want to or can’t do. I question if this was the type of world we wanted to live in. I wonder if “feeding real time data from the internet directly into your brain and being able to then intuitively experience and feel that data without analyzing it” is the best for humanity (66). After all, we can barely keep ourselves off social media. I can only imagine would happen if we intuitively experienced all those status updates and “Likes” at once.

Thankfully, Papagiannis says that “AR will not supplant or be a substitute for the human imagination.” Using AR should be a choice but that doesn’t mean AR won’t be using us. Just because you’re not on Facebook doesn’t mean there aren’t photos of you on the site. In describing augmented reality’s storytelling capabilities, Papagiannis writes that the “user’s environment will be continually analyzed to provide the best contextually relevant experience” (76). AR will bring new, valuable experiences. It will be the creative uses that are not “limited to mimicking reality [nor] bound to the laws of reality” that will drive “wonder and awe” (69). However, I think we should continue to practice caution as the technology is bound to “become habitual”.

I love Papagiannis’s emphasis on the human side of tech and designing AR for humans instead of teaching humans how to use augmented reality. I think this is a key concept anyone developing software or hardware needs to remember. We’re doing this for people so that we can be better at our jobs and spend time doing work that humans are good at.

Papagiannis quotes Brian David Johnson who says, “technology is just a tool: we design our tools and imbue them with our sense of humanity and our values.” Whose values are being imbued in the tech? Is it the creator’s or the user’s? Facebook, Google, Instagram – they all control what we see and what we don’t. Figuring out what is real requires research across multiple search engines. If companies that lead with bias and ad-based results enters our lives seamlessly through AR, then we’re in trouble.

We create with good intentions, “to make people’s lives better”. Raise your hand if you ever used Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa sits in our house and listens day and night for us to call out her name. We think she only tracks what we ask her but the flaw in that is she has to be listening for that cue. This is exactly what they want. Dr. Genevie Bell, a director of interaction and experience research at Intel believes that we will be “entering a trusting “relationship” with our devices. That “our devices will know us in a very different way by being intuitive about who we are” (99).

Quote for HER the movie via GIPHY

Who owns the data that our devices collect? Who has access and control over our relationships with our devices? It could have a happy ending like in the movie Her, where the AI operating systems decide to leave Earth. But what happens if they don’t and who takes responsibility when things go wrong. Remember reading those stories of people who drove into lakes and blamed it on Google Maps telling them too?

Throughout the book, Papagiannis puts an emphasis on the “technology disappearing into the background, serving to calm rather than distract” as imagined by Mark D. Weiser (107). Tech “happens in the background, and it appears when you need it”. This is how Papagiannis imagines the second wave of AR. Not an in-your-face overlay on your window shield but a calm reminder to turn left or slow down.

I don’t think AR being part of our lives is all bad. It would be great to work through a device to set up my mom’s phone or assist grandma in getting her text messages on her iPad. I look forward to when “AR will no longer be a gimmicky overlay, but a dynamic, meaningful, and responsive on-demand experience with the user in an ongoing conversation with his or her environment” (103).

Papagiannis tells us that this is our chance to create a technology that aligns with our human values. She says we must ask ourselves, “how do we want to live in this new augmented world” (121)? I’m with her on that. There is so much good that can come from the many augmented applications demonstrated in her book. I hope that we can create an augmented world with each other in mind.

In China, I witnessed a heart floating in front of me. I was surrounded by real people in the real HTC offices. But there it was. I could tap it with my finger and read information bubbles describing the different chambers of the heart. I could walk around it and hear the blood pumping. It’s immersive experiences like that one that makes me a believer in this technology.

Final Thoughts

In the final chapters, Papagiannis covers a lot of new terms and examples of AR moving past novelty to support storytelling. Rather than recap these examples, I’d like to share my favorite quotes from the final chapters. To understand and try the examples out for yourself, I highly recommend reading Augmented Human.

Presence in AR vs. VR

“If presence in VR is the feeling of you “really being there,” presence in AR is the perception of the virtual content melding with the physical environment as though the content is “really here””. (70)

Create the Killer AR App

“We need to move beyond a fascination with the trick of the technology and toward compelling content and meaningful experiences.” (71)

Redefining Augmented Reality

“AR’s possibilities stretch far beyond projecting images…real time awareness, translation, immersion, sensorial integration, and overall new understand of our world” (76).

3D Printing is so 2016

Augmentation is built into materials with 4-D printing. “Scientists have been able to program physical and biological materials in nanotechnology to change their shapes and properties” – Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab

This post is part of the VR Book Club Series. This month we’re reading Augmented Human by Helen Papagiannis.

Part 1 – Should we be augmented?

Part 2 – Is Smell-O-Vision the Future of AR?

Join the Book Club on AltspaceVR.

Get Augmented Human

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