Augmented reality (AR) refers to a technology that could combine computer-generated content into the real world and also enable users interacting with digital objects in real-time (Kamphuis et al., 2014). According to the reality-virtuality continuum, AR is placed in the mixed reality range which closer to the physical environment. In essence, AR inserts a seamlessly virtual overlay into our perceptions of the real world.
The AR will be the 4th transformation in the history of information technology (Scoble & Israel, 2016). In the 1970s, the 1st transformation came when computers started running on a text-based operating system. The 2nd transformation occurred with computers operating on graphical user interfaces starting with Apple’s Macintosh in 1984. After that, the 3rd transformation came with mobile computing which began with the iPhone. By using fingertips, people could access all information around the world on their smartphones and personal tablets. While AR will bring information right before our eyes after the 4th transformation. Before this happens in the near future, we need to think about whether AR will bring us a better reality or not.
AR’s Genesis and Historical Trends
The origin of AR could date back to the early 18th century and the AR technology is gradually developing over time as it will become the fourth computing threshold in future decades. The stereoscope which was invented in 1832 was the beginning of both VR and AR. Charles Wheatstone made the device to create a seemingly distant and larger 3D landscape images (Bimber & Raskar, 2005). By viewing a pair of images for each eye with an appropriate distance, users of stereoscope could see a ‘new’ reality that was chosen by themselves (Kerwien, 2014). For the very first time, stereoscope made the idea of creating artificial reality happen in the world.
Then over a hundred years, scientists kept working on constructing a virtual world that ‘look real, act real, sound real and feel real’ (Whitman et. al, 2002, p. 4). In 1968, the first modern AR headset ‘Sword of Damocles’ came out and it is one of the first humankind experiments replacing the real world with digital reality (Liao, 2018). Ivan Sutherland invented this head-mounted display (HMD) to help helicopter pilots landing at night. The ‘Sword of Damocles’ enabled users to see visuals overlaying physical space. Although the HMD was so heavy that needs to be fixed on the ceiling of a room, it was the prototype of AR headset people saw today. Therefore, from the stereoscope to ‘Sword of Damocles’, the ongoing evolution of AR will revolutionise the information technology and people’s way of lives.
Key Business Owners and Controllers
Because of the huge potential of AR business in the future, it becomes the next battlefield of technology giants though the companies now focus on different scopes of AR technology. To be clear, Microsoft devotes to headset AR market while Google is more interested in mobile AR. Meanwhile, Apple concentrates on AR developer platform and keep working on a game-changing AR smart glasses.
Microsoft’s HoloLens is a mix reality headset released in 2016 as a development edition. It superimposes holograms on the user’s physical environment to produce an augmented reality experience (Hanna et al., 2018). On 24 February 2019, Microsoft released HoloLens 2 with twice field of view and more ergonomic design than the first generation. Thus, the HoloLens 2 presents the top level of AR headset in the current days.
In 2014, Google Glass was proudly introduced by the company but the market did not react well about the device. Then Google pays attention to mobile AR which based on smartphones rather than the HMD like Microsoft. The company aims using AR to make personal devices more helpful for their users. For example, the AR feature in Google map will be a future developing direction. Additionally, The Niantic, an internal company of Google, designed a location-based AR game Pokémon GO which became a world hit in 2016 (Paavilainen et al., 2017). Because massive population already owning smart devices, Google now targets the mobile AR as its major market.
In 2017, Apple releases ARKit as an application programming platform for developers to create augmented reality applications for mobile devices (Nowacki & Woda, 2020). In the same year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the company would NOT release an AR product until it could provide a great experience. Namely, the field of view and quality of displays of Apple’s existing smart glasses are not up to what they would be satisfied releasing. With Cook’s ambition, Apple will launch an incredible AR device in the future which might change the whole industry.
Is Augmented Reality Necessarily a Better Reality?
Like any modern technology, AR has both benefits and drawbacks to society. On the one hand, it brings political-economic benefit to firms by using AR marketing and has the social benefit to students by offering better educational experiences. One the other hands, there are digital fatigue risk and ethical concerns about privacy and autonomy when AR penetrate into our lives.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UudV1VdFtuQ (IKEA 2017 ‘Say Hej to IKEA Place’ Standard YouTube Licence)
Commercial enterprises could apply AR technology as a marketing strategy to attract more consumers. By increasing the level of convenience, people tend to have a better impression of the firm and are more likely to buy the product (Bulearca & Tamarjan, 2010). Nowadays, there are already many companies like Amazon, IKEA and L’Oréal release AR platforms to promote their products. For example, through IKEA Place, people could preview the true to scale 3D models at home so they could make sure the furniture is just the ‘right size, design and functionality’ for the room. AR marketing drives consumer decision making and helps people building a better attitude towards the brand (Rauschnabel, Felix, & Hinsch, 2019). Thus, AR marketing could help firms effectively extract more revenue.
AR education provides students with a better learning environment by transforming 2D knowledge into 3D visual concepts. Students will have a ‘real’ experience about the learning material when interacting with AR in class. It helps them to understand and remember the dry content in a more interesting way. For example, medical students need to study the sophisticate human organs, diseases and treatments. This process is quite exhausting and boring; however, an AR representation of routine material could make it much easier and more engaging for medical students. Additionally, Medicine is a course that highly relies on clinical practice but the number of cadavers which a student could dissect at university is usually limited. This problem could be solved by putting students in an AR training environment to do dissections and surgeries (Kamphuis et al., 2014). Hence, AR technology for education has a considerable social benefit.
Although AR has political-economic and social advantages, people need to notice that there are also negative aspects of the technology. The everywhere AR in the future will be both the best and the worst reality. As AR substantially raises the time we spend interacting with digital elements, the risk of digital fatigue also increases. The convergence of the physical world and the virtual world might finally make off-line becoming impossible. When AR goes too far, people will lose their attention to the real world. For instance, Keiichi Matsuda’s short film Hyper-Reality is a warning sign about overwhelming AR usage in future society (Park et al., 2018). The overload of AR leads to sensory chaos about the physical and virtual environment. Therefore, spatial computing will make users feel worn out because there will be endless information entering their vision field.
When AR empowers someone else to decide what you could see through your eyes or not, individual privacy and autonomy will be violated. Arkangel, a Black Mirror episode, shows that a possibility of inappropriate AR filter will ruin kids’ basic human rights under parents’ censorship. After a daughter goes missing, the mother approaches a company called Arkangel. By injecting a chip in her daughter’s brain, the system could not only track the location of the child but also allows the mother to see and filter her daughter’s vision through AR. For example, the daughter cannot see any violent scenes because blood will be blurred automatically by AR algorithm.
However, the ‘protection’ does not ensure the daughter have a normal happy life. She was being called ‘chip head’ by her classmates because everything she sees, her mother sees and would ultimately get other people in trouble. It causes her do not have many friends at school. After being laughed at having no idea about blood at school, the daughter chooses to self-harm in order to understand what blood really is. At the end of the episode, she goes against her mother’s censorship through violence and finally leaves the house. Although the story is from a science fiction TV series, it exemplifies that inappropriate controlling rights of AR will violate people’s privacy and autonomy.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbifXxy0mG0 (Hyuri Correia 2017 ‘BLACK MIRROR: ARKANGEL | Problems’ Standard YouTube Licence)
Before the coming 4th transformation, it is a question that worth thinking about: will AR bring us a better reality? It has positive aspects of political economy and social development while it also has negative features like digital overload and moral concerns about the violation of basic human rights. However, the application of AR in people’s everyday life will not happen overnight. There are still several technological advances in hardware, applications, IoT and 5G network should take place. Before AR actually enter our lives, finding a path that minimises its potential risks is a common goal of governments, technology companies and us as future users.
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