The Reality of Augmented Reality

On the gut level, reactions to Google's recently leaked top secret augmented reality eyeglasses can be split into two broad camps: the WTF!?! crew (concerned with privacy) and the WHOA!!! crew (excited about the future). 

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On the gut level, reactions to Google's recently leaked top secret augmented reality eyeglasses can be split into two broad camps: the WTF!?! crew (concerned with privacy) and the WHOA!!! crew (excited about the future). The rumor of an Internet-ready set of Google Goggles being developed in the company's X labs have been floating around the geek websites for months but hit the mainstream on Monday night when Bits blogger Nick Bilton put the The New York Times stamp on it. Citing earlier reports in 9 to 5 Google, Bilton said that "a pair of Google-made glasses that will be able to stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time," have a 3G or 4G data connection and a number of sensors including motion and GPS," and will cost between $250 and $600.

Of course, if you have a smartphone, you can already do all of this stuff. But let's visit the two camps of reactionaries as represented in The Times' comment section and try to figure out exactly what to make of this latest piece of Minority Report-like technology. (And we promise: That will be the last Phillip K. Dick reference we make.)


Jane from Oregon says: "It can all be summarized in Goggle's new motto: Stalk Your Customer. Much more accurate than Don't Be Evil, and it gives Google the chance to provide everyone with their fantastic intuitive experience of being in the panopticon."

Dave from the U.K. says: "Just imagine the volume and depth of the data Google will be able to collect about you with these... your location, what you look at (and for how long, or how often). Amazing, exceptionally powerful, otherwise unobtainable data for their advertising business."

As Bilton reports, Google does have plans to monetize this product, but if you think this is shady, don't use Google products. In the short term, the kinds of new socially-driven, personalized technologies created by everyone from Apple to Zynga are pushing the boundaries of user privacy, but in the long term folks like Dave probably hope that that these technologies will both add value to the user while also sorting out exactly what privacy means in the 21st Century. At the very worst, things like Google Goggles will raise awareness about these issues as they're literally in users faces. Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic's senior editor for technology, just wrote a piece about how supposedly invasive technologies could bring about a "renaissance, not erosion, of privacy." If you're more of an academic type, you might enjoy this paper (PDF) from Stephen S. Intille and Amy M. Intille at MIT's Media Lab about the privacy concerns raised by augmented reality.


Almar van der Krogt from The Netherlands says: "Privacy concerns set aside, I think people will embrace this technology to create their 'augmented self'. People are exhibitionist by nature, which is the whole premise of fashion and personal decorations. So people you are looking at become the (unexpected) artworks."

As we mentioned above, augmented reality has been around for a while. The term is believed to have been invented way back in 1990 by a Boeing engineer, though elements of augmented reality technology have existed since the late 1950s. Essentially, augmented reality is the middle ground between virtual reality and actual reality. The general public got a taste of how augmented reality could be awesome when Yelp semi-secretly released a new version of their smartphone app with a hidden feature called "Monocle." Unlocking Monocle uses the smartphone's camera to show you Yelp-reviewed places around you. If you see a storefront that looks interesting, you can simply tap the screen to see more information and reviews of that location. (The existing smartphone version of Google Googles basically does the same thing.) Other apps even connect with the smartphones of other pedestrians to tell you more about whom you're looking at. Watch this:

LKSander from the World says: "Google is to be congratulated on this initiative. It will prove to be enormously useful to the Military, in Search & Rescue work and in Disaster Relief situations. That is just for starters."

It's unclear whether or not LKSander is being sarcastic, but there are countless benefits to augmented reality including but not limited to public health and safety. As smartphone use has proliferated more and more developers have been building apps with augmented reality features built in that can do everything from tell you the name of the mountain in the distance to the constellation above you in the sky -- even in the daylight. Lately, augmented reality is moving beyond the traditional definition of screens. We've written about driverless cars that use augmented reality windshields to drive themselves to wearable computers that work sort of like electronic skin. This list goes on and on.


Regardless of which camp you fall into, the ultimate question is whether or not you must participate in this augmented reality revolution. Quite simply: It's up to you. If you don't like being tracked and offering up your personal data for companies to sell to advertisers, avoid using their products, keep your phone in airplane mode and crank up all of the privacy settings on all of your various social media and email accounts. If you're all for augmented reality, buy some of those apparently overpriced Google Goggles and let the future begin.

Oh, and we were just kidding about not including any more Phillip K. Dick references:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.