Little monsters and big waves

 

pokémon at AuschwitzSome amazing stories have been emerging lately about Pokémon GO, from people wandering through live broadcasts in search of monsters, to lurings of mugging victims, to discoveries of dead bodies, to monsters in art galleries and museums, to people throwing phones to try to capture Pokémons, to it overtaking Facebook in engagement (by a mile), to cafes going from empty to full in a day thanks to one little monster, to people entering closed zoo enclosures and multiple other  dangerous behaviours (including falling off a cliff),  to uses of Pokémon to raise money for charity, to applause for its mental and physical health benefits, to the saving of 27 (real) animals, to religious edicts to avoid it from more than one religion, to cheating boyfriends being found out by following Pokémon GO tracks.

And so on.

Of all of them, my current favourite is the story of the curators of Auschwitz having to ask people not to play the game within its bounds. It’s kind of poetic: people are finding fictional monsters and playing games with them in a memorial that is there, more than anything, to remind us of real monsters. We shall soon see a lot more and a lot wilder clashes between reality and augmented reality, and a lot more unexpected consequences, some great, some not. Lives will be lost, lives will be changed. There will be life affirming acts, there will be absurdities, there will be great joy, there will be great sadness. As business models emerge, from buttons to sponsorship to advertising to trading to training, there will be a lot of money being made in a vast, almost instant ecosystem. Above all, there will be many surprises. So many adjacent possibles are suddenly emerging.

AR (augmented reality) has been on the brink of this breakthrough moment for a decade or so. I did not guess that it would explode in less than a week when it finally happened, but here it is. Some might quibble about whether Pokémon GO is actually AR as such (it overlays rather than augments reality), but, if there were once a more precise definition of AR, there isn’t any more. There are now countless millions that are inhabiting a digitally augmented physical space, very visibly sharing the same consensual hallucinations, and they are calling it AR. It’s not that it’s anything new. Not at all. It’s the sheer scale of it.  The walls of the dam are broken and the flood has begun.

This is an incredibly exciting moment for anyone with the slightest interest in digital technologies or their effects on society. The fact that it is ‘just’ a game just makes it all the more remarkable. For some, this seems like just another passing fad: bigger than most, a bit more interesting, but just a fad. Perhaps so. I don’t care. For me, it seems like we are witnessing a sudden, irreversible, and massive global shift in our perceptions of the nature of digital systems, of the ways that we can use them, and of what they mean in our lives. This is, with only a slight hint of hyperbole, about to change almost everything.

Aside: it’s not VR, by the way

Zuckerberg and an audience wearing Samsung Gears (Facebook image)There has been a lot of hype of late around AR’s geekier cousin, VR (virtual reality), notably relating to Oculus, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR, but I’m not much enthused. VR has moved only incrementally since the early 90s and the same problems we saw back then persist in almost exactly the same form now, just with more dots.  It’s cool, but I don’t find the experience is really that much more immersive than it was in the early 90s, once you get over the initial wowness of the far higher fidelity. There are a few big niches for it (hard core gaming, simulation, remote presence, etc), and that’s great. But, for most of us, its impact will (in its current forms) not come close to that of PCs, smartphones, tablets, TVs or even games consoles. Something that cuts us off from the real world so completely, especially while it is so conspicuously physically engulfing our heads in big tech, cannot replace very much of what we currently do with computers, and only adds a little to what we can already do without it. Notwithstanding its great value in supporting shared immersive spaces, the new ways it gives us to play with others, and its great potential in games and education, it is not just asocial, it is antisocial. Great big tethered headsets (and even untethered low-res ones) are inherently isolating. We also have a long way to go towards finding a good way to move around in virtual spaces. This hasn’t changed much for the better since the early 90s, despite much innovation. And that’s not to mention the ludicrous amounts of computing power needed for it by today’s standards: my son’s HTC Vive requires a small power station to keep it going, and it blows hot air like a noisy fan heater. It is not helped by the relative difficulty of creating high fidelity interactive virtual environments, nor by vertigo issues. It’s cool, it’s fun, but this is still, with a few exceptions, geek territory. Its big moment will come, but not quite yet, and not as a separate technology: it will be just one of the features that comes for free with AR.

Bigger waves

AR, on the whole, is the opposite of isolating. You can still look into the eyes of others when you are in AR, and participate not just in the world around you, but in an enriched and more social version of it. A lot of the fun of Pokémon GO involves interacting with others, often strangers, and it involves real-world encounters, not avatars. More interestingly, AR is not just a standalone technology: as we start to use more integrated technologies like heads-up displays (HUDs) and projectors, it will eventually envelop VR too, as well as screen-based technologies like PCs, smartphones, TVs, e-readers, and tablets, as well as a fair number of standalone smart devices like the Amazon Echo (though the Internet of Things will integrate interestingly with it). It has been possible to replace screens with glasses for a long time (devices between $100 and $200 abound) but, till now, there has been little point apart from privacy, curiosity, and geek cred. They have offered less convenience than cellphones, and a lot of (literal and figurative) headaches. They are either tethered or have tiny battery lives, they are uncomfortable, they are fragile, they are awkward to use, high resolution versions cost a lot, most are as isolating as VR and, as long as they are a tiny niche product, perhaps most of all, there are some serious social obstacles to wearing HUDs in public. That is all about to change. They are about to become mainstream.

The fact that AR can be done right now with no more than a cellphone is cool and it has been for a few years, but it will get much cooler as the hardware for HUDs becomes better, more widespread and, most importantly, more people share the augmented space. The scale is what makes the Pokémon GO phenomenon so significant, even though it is currently mostly a cellphone and GO Plus thing. It matters because, apart from being really interesting in its own right, soon, enough people will want hardware to match, and that will make it worth going into serious mass production. At that point it gets really interesting, because lots of people will be wearing HUD AR devices.

Google’s large-scale Glass experiment was getting there (and it’s not over yet), but it was mostly viewed with mild curiosity and a lot of suspicion. Why would any normal person want to look like the Borg? What were the wearers doing with those very visible cameras? What were they hiding? Why bother? The tiny minority that wore them were outsiders, weirdos, geeks, a little creepy. But things have moved on: the use cases have suddenly become very compelling, enough (I think) to overcome the stigma. The potentially interesting Microsoft Hololens, the incredibly interesting Magic Leap, and the rest (Meta 1, Recon Jet, Moverio, etc, etc) that are queueing up in the sidelines are nearly here. Apparently, Pokémon GO with a Hololens might be quite special. Apple’s rumoured foray into the field might be very interesting. Samsung’s contact-lens camera system is still a twinkling in Samsung’s eye, but it and many things even more amazing are coming soon. Further off, as nanotech develops and direct neural interfaces become available, the possibilities are (hopefully not literally) mind blowing.

What this all adds up to is that, as more of us start to use such devices, the computer as an object, even in its ubiquitous small smartphone or smartwatch form, will increasingly disappear. Tools like wearables and smart digital assistants have barely even arrived yet, but their end is palpably nigh. Why bother with a smart watch when you can project anything you wish on your wrist (or anywhere else, for that matter?). Why bother with having to find a device when you are wearing any device you can imagine? Why take out a phone to look for Pokémon? Why look at a screen when you can wear a dozen of them, anywhere, any size, adopting any posture you like? It will be great for ergonomics. This is pretty disruptive: whole industries are going to shrink, perhaps even disappear.

The end of the computer

Futurologists and scifi authors once imagined a future filled with screens, computers, smartphones and visible tech. That’s not how it will be at all. Sure, old technologies never die so these separate boxes won’t disappear altogether, and there’s still plenty of time left for innovation in such things, and vast profits still to be made in them as this revolution begins. There may be a decade or two of growth left for these endangered technologies. But the mainstream future of digital technologies is much more human, much more connected, much more social, much more embedded, and much less visible. The future is AR. The whirring big boxes and things with flashing lights that eat our space, our environment, our attention and our lives will, if they exist at all, be hidden in well-managed farms of servers, or in cupboards and walls. This will greatly reduce our environmental impact, the mountains of waste, the ugliness of our built spaces. I, for one, will be glad to see the disappearance of TV sets, of mountains of wires on my desk, of the stacks of tablets, cellphones, robots, PCs, and e-readers that litter my desktop, cupboards and basement. OK, I’m a bit geeky. But most of our homes and workplaces are shrines to screens and wiring. it’s ugly, it’s incredibly wasteful, it’s inhibiting. Though smartness will be embedded everywhere, in our clothing, our furniture, our buildings, our food, the visible interface will appear on displays that play only in or on our heads, and in or on the heads of those around us, in one massive shared hyperreality, a blend of physical and virtual that we all participate in, perhaps sharing the same virtual space, perhaps a different one, perhaps one physical space, perhaps more. At the start, we will wear geeky goggles, visors and visible high tech, but this will just be an intermediate phase. Pretty soon they will start to look cool, as designers with less of a Star Trek mentality step in. Before long, they will be no more weird than ordinary glasses. Later, they will almost vanish. The end point is virtual invisibility, and virtual ubiquity.

AR at scale

Pokémon GO has barely scratched the surface of this adjacent possible, but it has given us our first tantalizing glimpses of the unimaginably vast realms of potential that emerge once enough people hook into the digitally augmented world and start doing things together in it. To take one of the most boringly familiar examples, will we still visit cinemas when we all have cinema-like fidelity in devices on or in our heads? Maybe. There’s a great deal to be said for doing things together in a physical space, as Pokémon GO shows us with a vengeance. But, though we might be looking at the ‘same’ screen, in the same place, there will be no need to project it. Anywhere can become a cinema just as anywhere can be a home for a Pokémon. Anywhere can become an office. Any space can turn into what we want it to be. My office, as I type this, is my boat. This is cool, but I am isolated from my co-workers and students, channeling all communication with them through the confined boundaries of a screen. AR can remove those boundaries, if I wish. I could be sitting here with friends and colleagues, each in their own spaces or together, ‘sitting’ in the cockpit with me or bobbing on the water. I could be teaching, with students seeing what I see, following my every move, and vice versa. When my outboard motor needs fixing (it often does) I could see it with a schematic overlay, or receive direct instruction from a skilled mechanic: the opportunities for the service industry, from plumbing to university professoring, are huge. I could replay events where they happened, including historical events that I was not there to see, things that never happened, things that could happen in the future, what-if scenarios, things that are microscopically small, things that are unimaginably huge, and so on. This is a pretty old idea with many mature existing implementations (e.g. here, here, here and here). Till now they have been isolated phenomena, and most are a bit clunky. As this is accepted as the mainstream, it will cascade into everything. Forget rose-tinted spectacles: the world can be whatever I want it to become. In fact, this could be literally true, not just virtually: I could draw objects in the space they will eventually occupy (such virtual sculpture apps already exist for VR), then 3D print them.

Just think of the possibilities for existing media. Right now I find it useful to work on multiple monitors because the boundaries of one screen are insufficient to keep everything where I need it at once. With AR, I can have dozens of them or (much more interestingly) forget the ‘screen’ metaphor altogether and work as fluidly as I like with text, video, audio and more, all the while as aware of the rest of my environment, and the people in it, as I wish. Computers, including cellphones, isolate: they draw us into them, draw our gaze away from the world around us. AR integrates with that world, and integrates us with it, enhancing both physical and virtual space, enhancing us. We are and have only ever been intelligent as a collective, our intelligence embedded in one another and in the technologies we share. Suddenly, so much more of that can be instantly available to us. This is seriously social technology, albeit that there will be some intriguing and messy interpersonal problems when each of us might be  engaged in a private virtual world while outwardly engaging in another. There are countless ways this could (and will) play out badly.

Or what about a really old technology? I now I have hundreds of e-books that sit forgotten, imprisoned inside that little screen, viewable a page at a time or listed in chunks that fit the dimensions of the device. Bookshelves – constant reminders of what we have read and augmenters of our intellects – remain one of the major advantages of p-books, as does their physicality that reveals context, not just text. With AR, I will be able to see my whole library (and other libraries and bookstores, if I wish), sort it instantly, filter it, seek ideas and phrases, flick through books as though they were physical objects, or view them as a scroll, or one large sheet of virtual paper, or countless other visualizations that massively surpass physical books as media that contribute to my understanding of the text. Forget large format books for images: they can be 20 metres tall if we want them to be. I’ll be able to fling pages, passages, etc onto the wall or hovering in the air, shuffle them, rearrange them, connect them. I’ll be able to make them disappear all at once, and reappear in the same form when I need them again. The limits are those of the imagination, not the boundaries of physical space. We will no doubt start by skeuomorphically incorporating what we already know but, as the adjacent possibles unfold, there will be no end to the creative potential to go far, far beyond that. This is one of the most boring uses of AR I can think of, but it is still beyond magical.

We will, surprisingly soon, continuously inhabit multiple worlds – those of others, those others invent, those that are abstract, those that blend media, those that change what we perceive, those that describe it, those that explain it, those that enhance it, those we assemble or create for ourselves. We will see the world through one another’s eyes, see into one another’s imaginations, engage in multiple overlapping spaces that are part real, part illusion, and we will do so with others, collocated and remote, seamlessly, continuously. Our devices will decorate our walls, analyze our diets, check our health. Our devices won’t forget things, will remember faces, birthdays, life events, connections. We may all have eidetic memories, if that is what we want. While cellphones make our lives more dangerous, these devices will make them safer, warning us when we are about to step into the path of an oncoming truck as we monitor our messages and news. As smartness is embedded in the objects around us, our HUDs will interact with them: no more lost shirts, no guessing the temperature of our roasts, no forgetting to turn off lights. We will gain new senses – seeing in the dark, even through walls, will become commonplace. We will, perhaps, sense small fluctuations in skin temperature to help us better understand what people are feeling. Those of us with visual impairment (most of us) will be able to zoom in, magnify, have text read to us, or delve deeper through QR codes or their successors. Much of what we need to know now will be unnecessary (though we will still enjoy discovering it, as much as we enjoy discovering monsters) but our ability to connect it will grow exponentially. We won’t be taking devices out of our pockets to do that, nor sitting in front of brightly lit screens.

We will very likely become very dependent on these ubiquitous, barely visible devices, these prostheses for the mind. We may rarely take them off. Not all of this will be good. Not by a mile. When technologies change us, as they tend to do, many of those changes tend to be negative. When they change us a lot, there will be a lot of negatives, lots of new problems they create as well as solve, lots of aggregations and integrations that will cause unforeseen woes. This video at vimeo.com/166807261 shows a nightmare vision of what this might be like, but it doesn’t need to be a nightmare: we will need to learn to tame it, to control it, to use it wisely. Ad blockers will work in this space too.

What comes next

AR has been in the offing for some time, but mainly as futuristic research in labs, half-baked experimental products like Google Glass, or ‘hey wow’ technologies like Layar, Aurasma, Google Translate, etc. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, all the big players, as well as many thousands of startups, are already scrabbling frantically to get into this space, and to find ways to use what they already have to better effect. I suspect they are looking at the Pokémon GO phenomenon with a mix of awe, respect, and avarice (and, in Google’s case, perhaps a hint of regret). Formerly niche products like Google Tango or Structure Sensor are going to find themselves a lot more in the spotlight as the value of being able to accurately map physical space around us becomes ever greater. Smarter ways of interacting, like this at www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA_HZVmmY84, will sprout like weeds.

People are going to pay much more attention to existing tools and wonder how they can become more social, more integrated, more fluid, less clunky. We are going to need standards: isolated apps are quite cool, but the big possibilities occur when we are able to mash them up, integrate them, allow them to share space with one another. It would be really useful if there were an equivalent of the World Wide Web for the augmented world: a means of addressing not just coordinates but surfaces, objects, products, trees, buildings, etc, that any application could hook into, that is distributed and open, not held by those that control the APIs. We need spatial and categorical hyperlinks between things that exist in physical and virtual space. I fear that, instead, we may see more of the evils of closed APIs controlled by organizations like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and their kin. Hopefully they will realise that they will get bigger benefits from expanding the ecosystem (I think Google might get this first) but there is a good chance that short-termist greed will get the upper hand instead. The web had virgin, non-commercial ground in which to flourish before the bad people got there. I am not sure that such a space exists any more, and that’s sad. Perhaps HTML 6 will extend into physical space. That might work. Every space, every product, every plant, every animal, every person, addressable via a URL.

There will be ever more innovations in battery or other power/power saving technologies, display technologies and usability: the abysmal battery life of current devices, in particular, will soon be very irritating. There will likely be a lot of turf wars as different cloud services compete for user populations, different standards and APIs compete for apps, and different devices compete for customers. There will be many acquisitions. Privacy, already a major issue, will take a pounding, as new ways of invading it proliferate. What happens when Google sees all that you see? Measures your room with millimetre accuracy? Tracks every moment of your waking life? What happens when security services tap in? Or hackers? Or advertisers? There will be kickback and resistance, much of it justified. New forms of DRM will struggle to contain what needs to be free: ownership of digital objects will be hotly contested. New business models (personalized posters anyone? in situ personal assistants? digital objects for the home? mashup museums and galleries?) will enrage us, inform us, amuse us, enthrall us. Facebook, temporarily wrong footed in its ill-considered efforts to promote Oculus, will come back with a vengeance and find countless new ways to exploit us (if you think it is bad now, imagine what it will be like when it tracks our real-world social networks). The owners of the maps and the mapped data will become rich: Niantic is right now sitting on a diamond as big as the Ritz. We must be prepared for new forms of commerce, new sources of income, new ways of learning, new ways of understanding, new ways of communicating, new notions of knowledge, new tools, new standards, new paradigms, new institutions, new major players, new forms of exploitation, new crimes, new intrusions, new dangers, new social problems we can so far barely dream of. It will certainly take years, not months, for all of this to happen, though it is worth remembering that network effects kick in fast: the Pokémon GO only took a few days. It is coming, significant parts of it are already here, and we need to be preparing for it now. Though the seeds have been germinating for many years, they have germinated in relatively isolated pockets. This simple game has opened up the whole ecosystem.

Pokéducation

I guess, being an edtech blogger, I should say a bit more about the effects of Pokémon GO on education but that’s mostly for another post, and much of it is implied in what I have written so far. There have been plenty of uses of AR in conventional education so far, and there will no doubt be thousands of ways that people use Pokémon GO in their teaching (some great adjacent possibles in locative, gamified learning), as well as ways to use the countless mutated purpose-built forms that will appear any moment now, and that will be fun, though not earth shattering. I have, for instance, been struggling to find useful ways to use geocaching in my teaching (of computing etc) for over a decade, but it was always too complex to manage, given that my students are mostly pretty sparsely spread across the globe: basically, I don’t have the resources to populate enough geocaches. The kind of mega-scale mapping that Niantic has successfully accomplished could now make this possible, if they open up the ecosystem. However, most uses of AR will, at first, simply extend the status quo, letting us do better what we have always done and that we only needed to do because of physics. The real disruption, the result of the fact we can overcome physics, will take a while longer, and will depend on the ubiquity of more integrated, seamlessly networked forms of AR. When the environment is smart, the kind of intelligence we need to make use of it is quite different from most of what our educational systems are geared up to provide. When connection between the virtual and physical is ubiquitous, fluid and high fidelity, we don’t need to limit ourselves to conventional boundaries of classes, courses, subjects and schools. We don’t need to learn today what we will only use in 20 years time. We can do it now. Networked computers made this possible. AR makes it inevitable. I will have more to say about this.

This is going to change things. Lots of things.

 

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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