Superpowers, Coming of Age

Avi Bar-Zeev
Mar 27 · 9 min read

I gave a talk in 2013 about how AR & VR (now better termed “Spatial Computing”) are fundamentally about giving people new superpowers.

Thinking like this helps us out of the coffin-shaped box where VR is mostly for shooting zombies and AR is mostly about labeling everything. There are so many more compelling uses for us to design that could fundamentally change the world for the better.

However, as the concept of Superpowers goes more and more mainstream, I think the key learnings are being somewhat lost in the noise. Six years later, I think it’s time for a critique, revision and extension of the original idea.

The Original Thesis

Any game-changing technology can be viewed as a human superpower. Superpowers let us overcome previous limitations. AR and VR are exciting because they foster many kinds of superpowers at once.

Here are the nine specific examples I shared in 2013 (see the corresponding article for more detail):

  • Fire (including the combustion engine) is about putting energy to work for us. How can Spatial Computing unlock and coordinate human energies?
  • Telephone is the closest thing we have to the future power of telepathy, with our voices effortlessly crossing time and space. How does holographic telepresence improve on that by making us feel like we’re together, improving collaboration and understanding?
  • Television is similarly the closest thing we have to future clairvoyance (remotely viewing other places and times). What happens when we can travel virtually, or surf into other people’s lives, or otherwise experience our entertainment out in 3D space?
  • The Wheel helps us move heavy things and ourselves. It is loosely analogous to telekinesis, without violating gravity. How can Spatial Computing help us move ideas more easily?
  • Flying (as in air travel) can be seen as a primitive form of teleportation, not quite instantaneous but the fastest thing we have. What happens when we use Spatial Computing to exist in two or more locations at the same time making physical travel obsolete?
  • The Computer provides us with extended intelligence. What happens when the computer can enhance our understanding and actions given whatever real-life situation we’re in?
  • Google provides a form of limited omniscience, like knowing every dumb fact in existence. What happens when this feels less like using a library and more like recalling a memory?
  • Twitter provides a form of limited omnipotence, giving us a platform to be seen by all, and thus (potentially) move mountains. The future may hold a more empathic sense than Twitter today, where we can feel how everyone else around us is feeling, and thus be moved.
  • Facebook provides a form of limited omnipresence, connecting you with people who are distant (more typically, those friends you don’t see routinely). What happens when we more fully stream our lives and participate remotely in the lives of others?

Super Ordinary

One early problem with the idea of superpowers is that once everyone has them, they no longer seem so super. There’s a normalizing effect due to exposure, that makes something magical seem mundane. We tend to forget what the world was like before toilets and cars and even cell phones.

We don’t tend to think of starting a fire as a superpower anymore, though it was once in the realm of mythology and mysticism. Finding a matchbook on the street doesn’t make you super. But if you use it improperly, it could make you an arsonist. The internal combustion engine (a refined application of fire) doesn’t seem quite as super today as it did when cars were novel. In fact, it’s something we’d like to obsolete, for the sake of the environment. At the same time, rocket engines are poised to help us explore the universe.

Super Bad

As with internal combustion engines, Spatial Computing could similarly become something that causes secondary harm, if we’re not careful. People walking down the street looking at their phones seem to be missing out on a lot of the real world already. It’s possible that AR, done wrong, could make this much worse. Painting the world with data, in the form of nice occluding visuals, might cause us to further ignore collectively addressable issues like poverty, traffic and unmitigated dog poop on the street.

Some kinds of AR would help you ignore the poop, until you step in it. A smarter AR app might warn you a step or two in advance. But a better designed AR application could collectively ensure it never happens again by educating and applying community action.

The superpower of free, addictive omnipresence (see Facebook) is a double-edged sword today. There is certainly value to “connecting the world.” But the “free” and “addictive” parts are causing measurable harm. We’ve traded away privacy and some agency for often superficial connections, while allowing the influence of manipulative advertising and fake news to lead us closer to ruin.

Seeing everything as super glosses over the idea that it could also be super bad. It takes thoughtful design and real-world testing to avoid the negative consequences.

Super Diverse

Another problem with the idea of “superpowers for everyone” elides the fact that we are all differently enabled to begin with. Some of our individual power comes from these differences. The exact same features could help or hurt two people very differently.

Let’s imagine a woman who is visually impaired and a man who has perfect vision, each moving along a sidewalk in a big city. For the woman, environmental sounds are very important for navigation and safety. Hearing a description of whatever is in front of her could feel like a superpower, whereas it might seem redundant or noisy to our example man. This same feature could be downright hazardous to the woman if it masks the environmental sounds she needs, perhaps by requiring acoustically opaque headphones, or simply overpowering the world with volume.

On the other hand, muting unwanted environmental sounds could seem like a superpower to the man, who is trying to concentrate on some mental task. He loves this new muting feature, up until the point he gets hit by a truck powered by an internal combustion engine he might have otherwise heard.

Super Advantaged

Perhaps the biggest problem with granting superpowers presumes that people will only adopt these technologies if it gives them an advantage over other people. It’s a bad place to begin, because it reinforces the idea that it’s us versus them.

Consider Google Glass, circa 2013. By giving a small number of so-called “explorers” the power to record anywhere, the system designers took away the power of everyone else to control their public/private interface to the world. Of course there are already millions of security cameras in our world. But by putting a camera on someone’s head and giving that person unilateral control, Glass put the privacy debate front and center as an object of focus and even derision.

But what if Google had designed it such that Glass couldn’t transmit anyone’s captured likeness without their explicit consent? Google already blurs people’s faces en masse for use in StreetView. Machine learning technology today can detect and remove whole people from photos and videos well enough so as to not diminish the results visually. If people wanted to opt-in to let themselves be recorded, they’d need only be identified by a unique facial ID stored locally on the capture device, or perhaps a social network connection off in the cloud. Everyone, in this scheme, could be put back in control of their own interface. So why hasn’t anyone done this yet?

Super Beneficent

Consider a different superpower — super empathy — or the power to know and care how other people are feeling. Most people have a natural form of this power by observing human faces, voices, body language since birth. Now imagine if a computer could make us smarter in this regard. Many of us would benefit from the added sensitivity, and for some it could be life-changing.

But it gets thornier as we consider more uses. A salesperson might buy that superpower to help him get an edge in business. A politician might want it to help her persuade others to her cause. A lawyer would likely want it to better read a witness or jury and tip the advantage in their direction. Or, alternatively, we can imagine the consumer using this power to determine if the salesperson, politician or lawyer is trying to trick them.

For this power to be really game-changing, it should be something that we’d want everyone to benefit from. Imagine, in the best case, more global empathy, people choosing to listen to each other more, avoiding unnecessary wars, increasing cooperation, etc..

In this example, super empathy is more beneficial as a common and mundane power than as an individual asymmetric superpower. The asymmetric uses tend to cause blowback, whereas the more common powers tend to stick. Again, the power may not seem so uniquely “super” at this scale, but the collective results would be globally transformational.

Super Divergent

I’ve asked a lot of people what superpowers they’d really want to have. The results tell us a lot about the individuals and about us collectively.

“Flying” tends to be the #1 choice I hear, which is today best approximated by the Google Earth VR experience. Flying gives us a freedom to exceed the boundaries of gravity and locality. The original Google Earth (which I was lucky to have helped kick off) gave us a way to view the planet as a whole, seeing location in context and building up geospatial awareness.

“Time control” is a close second choice in popularity, though it’s a bit harder to implement in AR or VR. There are some good AR prototypes out there that can overlay historical photos on real scenes and let us virtually travel to the past. I expect we’ll see a lot of VR recreations of history, in which “you are there.” But typically, “time control” as a power implies that folks want a way to “redo” anything, especially mistakes. I can relate to that. There are also a few who want to pause time for mischief, which might best be left to fantasy.

The power of “invisibility” is also remarkably high on the list. This is one of those superpowers that gives one person an asymmetrical advantage over others by letting them see but not be seen, to eavesdrop without the social cost. But invisibility can occasionally be empowering, for example by letting someone hide from a bully or griefer in a virtual space. But that’s a situation in which another power imbalance needs urgent remedy. Indeed, one of my favorite solutions is to put the bullies all together on their own island, so they can only bother each other.

Re-convergence

Superpowers are an attractive lens for Spatial Computing technologies in order to figure out which new experiences we will collectively find the most magical, compelling and useful. We need to tell a story about the real daily value of these experiences, because the devices are intended for the most expensive and fickle personal real-estate: our faces. The risks and potential downsides are very high, so the benefits must outweigh.

Spatial Computing gives us the potential for many kinds of superpowers at once. However, the experiences that will become most game-changing are the ones that elevate humanity most equitably, staying grounded in the most universal of all human needs, while preserving and protecting what already makes us individually unique and powerful in our own rights.

To the extent that people get distracted by trite or asymmetric superpowers, we are likely to create more chaos than good. Fire can burn down a neighborhood, but airplane engines can make the world a smaller and safer place. Television can be mind-numbing and distracting, but it can also teach children to read and inter-relate. Facebook can cause depression and anxiety, but it can also help liberate us from oppression and rally people for good.

So here’s what the thesis is looking like, after integrating all of these changes:

Spatial Computing introduces the potential for new human superpowers, by helping us overcome previous limitations. The most game-changing and persistent of these elevate humans en-masse, acting as a force multiplier vs. an individual augmenter. Every superpower has a good side and a bad side, and can help or hurt the wielder as well as others nearby. We must design these powers wisely for the greatest good and ensure that bad actors can’t exploit the rest.

Do you have any other superpowers in mind for Spatial Computing? Feel free to leave a comment to discuss.


About the Author

Avi Bar-Zeev has been a pioneer, architect and advisor in AR/VR/MR for over 25 years, behind the scenes in the worlds largest tech companies and at large. Most notably, he helped found and invent HoloLens at Microsoft, assembling the very first AR prototypes, demos and UX concepts. He put together the first prototypes for what is today called the “AR cloud.” At Amazon, he helped launch PrimeAir, as well as designing novel UX for undisclosed wearables. He most recently helped Apple advance undisclosed projects. In 1999, he co-founded the company behind Google Earth and subsequently helped define Second Life’s core technology. Back in the mid-90s, he worked on ground-breaking VR experiences for Disney, including “Aladdin’s Magic Carpet” VR Ride, the “Virtual Jungle Cruise” and “Cyberspace Mountain,” serving as technical lead for many. He is currently working on several new projects and consulting for others, reachable at www.realityprime.com

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Avi Bar-Zeev

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Design and Technology Leader (fmr. HoloLens, Apple, Google Earth, Second Life, Disney VR)