TL;DR — AR is a way to add computational processing to the physical world, which has the potential to augment our human cognitive abilities: problem-solving, cognition, decision making, physical senses, language capabilities, and information processing.
Augmented Reality (or AR) is a cool technology for adding computation to the world. But rather than augmenting reality, I think it’s worth making the disctinction that this isn’t what we are doing. We are augmenting ourselves.
”Augment: to make greater, more numerous, larger, or more intense” … “to improve, enhance or extend”
I would argue that we don’t augment reality per se. Reality around us doesn’t change when we look at our smartphone and see a digital element superimposed on a camera feed, or when Google Translate helps us understand a Japanese street sign, or when we see a virtual IKEA chair.
Of course something does happen, though - our own perception of reality is changed or assisted, which can act as a “cognitive scaffold”.
It follows then, that AR is a technology for augmenting ourselves and our own perception of the world. Augmenting our experience, if you want to use that word.
Types of AR apps
I’ve done a little review of current “state of the art” AR apps, and found that they can roughly be divided into five categories:
- gimmicks (some digital object superimposed on a camera feed)
- play / fun (e.g. Pokemon Go, Snapchat)
- visualisation in context to help you “future-gaze” and make decisions (example: previewing how a new watch / new glasses / shoes / socks / whatever will look on me, or how furniture will look in my living room, etc.)
- visualisation displayed in context for other purposes (examples: showing constellations on the night sky to assist your star gazing, or showing repair instructions as an aid to technicians)
- realtime data processing (example: Google Translate and other realtime language translation tools)
Despite these different categories, the vast majority of AR apps seem to be gimmicks, or purely for playing and having fun. (In itself I don’t think this is a problem — perhaps AR’s killer AP will ultimately turn out to be gaming — but why not reflect a bit on the possibilities?)
Faculties we might possibly augment
Why not try and step back to reflect on other ways AR as a technology could augment us as human beings. Taking inspiration from cognitive science, here is a list of human traits that might be worth augmenting. For some of these traits there are stuff in the market already:
- Problem solving skills (example: AR overlaid repair instructions)
- Decision making skills (example: future-gazing through IKEA Place)
- Our senses (sight, sound, hearing, taste, smell)
- Our attention — short/long-term
- Memory — short/long-term
- Our language abilities (example: Google Translate, Word Lens)
- Category formation
- Information processing
- Pattern recognition
- Our store of knowledge (e.g. star gazer, location aware metadata, GPS)
Each of these traits could be a starting point for a “How Might We” ideation session. How might we augment our senses, for example? Well we could augment our sight when driving at night or through rainy weather. We could augment our sense of hearing through increased volume or by adding realtime translation.
The field of Augmented Reality is still rich with possibilities for creating killer apps — many current AR apps fall squarely into the “gimmick” category, and user experience of most AR apps is pretty dismal. On top of this, we are a long way from reaching AR’s full potential, perhaps in part because we have not yet done enough exploration — and perhaps also because we need to think of AR not as an augmentation of reality, but as an augmentation of ourselves, our cognitive faculties, and of our perception of the world.