Random Digital Madness: Augmented Reality — why you will wonder how you lived without it

By Bill Harp
Reader Columnist

Why AR?  So, if augmented reality (AR) is not on your technology radar, I would like to change that. A few months ago, one of the county staff asked why we put so many fiber strands into the recently constructed fiber optic cable run across town. I replied, “The fiber optic cable has a 20- to 30-plus year service life.”

When I saw that he was not satisfied with that answer, I ostentatiously added, “We are preparing bandwidth for applications that haven’t even been invented yet.” Now he was interested and engaged: “Like what?”

I replied, stalling, “Well, if I knew that, I would be Mark Zuckerberg, but I am just a humble technologist.” I could see that was not sufficient and I had to think quickly, so I replied, “Things like augmented reality (AR) applications. They will require a whole new magnitude of bandwidth virtually everywhere.”

What is AR? The concept of AR is easy to understand, as it is a technology that enhances our vision and hearing with digitally supplied, superimposed relevant information. That information can be considered as an addition to your view of reality, and it is delivered by special glasses, goggles, heads-up display or perhaps by some technology not yet invented. Down the road, the interactive digital display information will be projected right on to your eyeballs, or something like that, and it will eventually include other sensory input such as sound, movement or even touch. The difference between AR and virtual reality (VR) is simple. AR is superimposed over your vision of physical reality. VR is complete immersion in a virtual digital reality. Of course, both technologies are similar, but AR will accompany daily interaction with your physical reality whereas VR will cut you off from physical reality and completely immerse you in an entirely digital world.

Why is AR revolutionary?  If the past is any indication, a powerful technology like AR will have a profusion of unintended consequences, but right now we can suggest a variety of applications.

For example, when you look at an urban landscape, you will see Yelp in your AR glasses with tags on every business just waiting for you to blink to find out how they are rated as they attempt to invite you in. Or perhaps you will see social media tabs above the heads of everyone within sight. With a blink, you could access their Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr or other accounts. Or you could send them a private digital message to their VR view. Some people would perhaps block their tabs in VR, which someday may be considered socially rude. So, you will have to run a facial recognition program to identify them, thereby overriding their security preferences to access their social data and profile. As I have mentioned in a previous article, if you think you can suppress access to your digital information, you have already lost that fight. It will be a very unusual person who does not have a digital history in some way accessible to you via a few blinks in VR.

Thousands of apps: Here are just a few of the thousands of potential overlays that may be relevant in augmented reality: Want to know the history of that building? Just blink. Want to identify that species of plant? Just blink. Want to calculate the distance between your car and the building door? Just call up the measuring tool and blink away to get the distance. Want to create a 3-D model of your view? Just blink. Want to find your car? Just follow the bread crumbs in your AR glasses. So AR will create entire 3-D scenes, objects, applications, scenarios and worlds that are overlaid on your regular world. Some you will control, and some scenarios and objects, others will control. There will be rules and standards but that hasn’t been worked out yet.

Cost and privacy:   These services will, in part, be free, and some will cost, and some will be downright expensive. So start saving up, but I imagine that many apps will be free. In exchange for free AR applications, you are the product: that is, your habits, attention and history will be productized in exchange for the “free” app. You have been warned! You will quickly tire of seeing virtual ads everywhere when you use certain services, so many will want to purchase the ad-free service. Others may be able to pay to suppress the sale or storage of the digital history of all the VR services and activities they are consuming. But good luck with that. You will know VR has arrived when you see an ad on the street for a product you just discussed with your sister over the phone.

Why is Bandwidth So Important?  All of this is going to require a whole lot of bandwidth that is very fast with small latency to operate seamlessly with real-time vision. Most bandwidth offered today by U.S. ISPs will most likely not be adequate. This means the need for fiber optic cable trunk lines everywhere. Without fiber, AR won’t be possible with the current generation of telecommunications technology. However, I hear that there are plans for low-orbit satellite internet services with little latency and gigabit bandwidth. That might work for AR. In the no-so-distant future, AR will become so useful, natural and essential that many folks won’t spend a waking moment without it, just as some do now with their smartphones.

The difference is AR will be many dimensions more engaging and seductive than the features and services we now receive on our smartphones. You might suggest that this is techno fantasy, but surprise! Most of the components of this technology exist now. It is just a matter of when and how and perhaps how much. Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens, Kinect and Oculus Rift are just the first volley. Check out this MS video on the HoloLens to get an idea on how AR works. In economic terms, it could be a far bigger industry than smartphones. In fact, smart phones will evolve into AR gear.

Some Speed Bumps: There are some rather complex issues, such as how best to deliver AR information and how best to interact with it. You might see folks stabbing and moving their arms and fingers in space to interact with AR just like in the movie “Minority Report” which was, in many ways, a 2002 oracle of AR technology to come.

Spatial Accuracy: Another issue is that AR is highly dependent on what you see and where you are, so it will require a very sophisticated methodology of spatially measuring your location and where you are looking. Consumer-grade GPS readings are accurate to 20-30 feet, but AR will require far more precise systems with centimeter-level accuracy to function well.

Virtual Immersion: As you can imagine, you will be able to interact with people at a distance when their image or avatar is superimposed on your field of vision. You will be able to talk to and see them as if they were present. Thus, virtual interactions in AR will be possible anywhere. This will lead to all kinds of business, social and gaming applications. Today’s technology will be considered low-res, clumsy, slow and rudimentary.

A Warning:  As for me, I will probably reluctantly use AR when I need to, just as I use my smart phone now. I will pick it up, or more accurately put in on, only when I really feel the need to use it. After a half-century, I am kind of attached to unencumbered reality.  Eventually, there will be some kind of a direct connection into the human nervous system so AR can flow as fast as your nervous system permits. This is tricky and has a lot of complex technical issues to figure out, but there is a lot of research into this area especially for folks with disabilities as well as enabling complex collaborative operations such as warfare.

Of course, I will share some free advice given by my spouse: If they invent a human-machine digital interface, don’t be the first in line to get that neuro plug in the back of your neck. You might want to wait until they release updates that will have solved some of the more serious bugs…

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