Through Rose-Tinted AR Glasses
It isn’t hard to find short films about distressing futures. After all, it’s the job of fiction to pose the “what if” that will send a shiver down the viewer’s spine. Utopian futures where technology serves the public good simply aren’t as interesting — at least not as 10-minute thought experiments designed to make the viewer click the share button and spread the fear — erm, video — to all their friends.
But what if we took those dire predictions and watched them through rose tinted glasses? Might we find the seeds of some pretty incredible ideas? Ideas that are poised to change our world for the better, to make us healthier, more productive, and healthier?
Let’s have a look. (Um… Spoiler alert, obviously.)
This video made the rounds last year, and internet media lost their minds about the dark future it portrayed. “The horror!” they screamed. Imagine if advertisers could access us all day long, every day. How terrible it would be; how distracting!
We open on a woman taking the bus to work. She’s dissatisfied with her job, but the app reminds her that if she switches careers now, she’ll lose all of her loyalty points. Better to soldier on! She heads to the grocery store (her job is to shop for a rich person, because apparently in this future we managed to automate our career paths but not basic tasks like grocery shopping?), where she is bombarded by loyalty shopping ads. As she makes her way down the overcrowded, overloud aisles, the augmented overlay fizzles out, and our point of view is confronted by bland walls and futuristic QR codes in place of advertisements — more on that in a minute. The glitch has erased all of her loyalty points, and she panics. In terror at losing her reality, the protagonist deletes her identity and starts again from scratch.
The really scary part of this imagined future is the idea that an app is making decisions about your career and life; that a computer program will tell you what you should do with your time, and that you will be so wrapped up in your loyalty reward system that you’ll let it. While it’s true that’s a scary idea, it has nothing to do with augmented reality. Those spooky moments could exist even if the only interface were Siri, or a smartphone in your pocket.
Our first reaction on seeing the loyalty app at the grocery store? “What a great idea!” Imagine if you had a Tamagotchi-style pet that you could improve based on your in-store purchases. Cute, right? And AR pop-ups that would give you information on the people around you, based on what they decided they wanted to share at any given moment? It would make dating a whole lot easier, not to mention other social interactions. Plus, we often talk about how targeted advertising is annoying, but think about it this way: either way, you’re going to see an ad. Wouldn’t you rather see a relevant one, rather than an umpteenth Jeep ad?
The moment where the ads fizzle out is supposed to show how barren and desolate the world truly is: the dark and shady underbelly. Instead, it shows how blissfully easy it will be to take a break in the future. Want to escape ads? Just take your contact lenses out. Today, if you want to get away from billboards and advertisements and the noise of the city, you have to drive out to the countryside.
Sign us up for the Hyper Future!
Once again, we have a film that claims to be about the dangers of augmented reality, when really it’s about the dangers of artificial intelligence. We think?
Granted, the ‘AR dystopia’ spin is being put on the piece by the reviewers, not the filmmaker. The film opens with a pitch for a new product: the CEO describes their AR pet technology, and explains how these pets can go with you anywhere, just like a real pet. You can feed them, play with them, and even take them for walks. It’s a pretty enticing vision.
Then, he describes how much his daughter loves her pet. The two of them go for a walk in the park, and the camera pans out to show that the pet they’re playing with isn’t real. Then it draws further back, and you realise the daughter isn’t real either. Spoooooooooky.
Okay, this one was pretty effective, and fun to watch. The problems arise when you start considering the actual technology. The main character is wearing contact lenses that let him see AR things; there doesn’t seem to be an auditory component. He shouldn’t be able to hear the pets (or his illusionary daughter), but he can. Then, the film overlays dark music to imply that what you’re seeing is scary, but when you actually stop and unpack it, the technology is really neat. Who wouldn’t want a virtual pet that they could interact with in the real world? This could be a huge boon for seniors, who probably aren’t allowed pets in housing facilities. And what about hospitals? It would be incredible for people who are on bedrest.
The “dark” side of this technology, of course, is the jump from a pet to a daughter. A Tamagotchi is cute; a RealDoll is creepy. The thing is, though… how real is she? Because unless they’ve perfected artificial intelligence, the human version of this pet app is likely not able to do much other than run back and forth, catch a ball, and maybe play tag. Hardly something that will interest most users, and definitely not a dark spooky possibility for our disconnected future. Frankly, it seems more likely to be a failed startup that no one will invest in because they’re simply not interested.
That adorable dragon, though? Sign us up.
Apparently AR contact lenses are the new Terminator lurking in the minds of writers everywhere, because this third film also portrays a world where we can interact with our computers using nothing but our eyes. The tech here is once again a little sketch, as the computer interactions seem to make noise even though no one is wearing earbuds. In Sight, a man interacts with AR technology before going on a date. He’s not doing very well, so he turns on a virtual dating assistant and knocks it out of the park.
They go back to his place, where the woman finds out that he has the dating sim and tries to storm out. But he activates some secret feature in the app (he works for the company) and takes over her body. She freezes, and he restarts her.
So, first of all, the original technology that we see is actually really cool. They try to make it look as awkward as possible, but the idea of being able to lie on your stomach and go flying? Super fun! He’s able to interact with the tech only by blinking, which is sadly pretty far out of our current grasp, though an intriguing possibility. Imagine how much easier it would be to send a text message if you didn’t have to type anything! (They don’t explain how she manages to write an entire text instantaneously — maybe the tech can read your brainwaves?) We also see the gamification of everyday tasks. Again, the film portrays this as a scary possibility, when in fact it could be used to help motivate and make menial tasks more enjoyable. We have a coworker who once worked construction. He was saving up to buy his now-wife an engagement ring, and every time he moved a shovel of dirt from one place to another, he imagined a brick that he was building in a bridge to reach the ring on the other side. It made the days go by more smoothly, and helped turn the task into a concrete challenge. Imagine if your AR contact lenses could do the same for you!
Finally, we see the woman lose her mind about this dating sim. The implication is that he is somehow being dishonest by using a computer program to help him be less socially awkward. But imagine if you could give this technology to someone with autism! You could provide them with social clues and context for even the most challenging social interactions. And even if you’re just a person who struggles to relate to people — it seems like a computer that could help you do that would be a good thing. In the same way that no one finds online dating strange anymore, chances are in a virtual future, it wouldn’t be considered inappropriate to get a little extra help from your AR wingman.
Obviously, the final straw, the woman being taken over by her contact lenses, is hard to put a positive spin on. It’s also essentially technologically impossible. Being able to beam something directly to someone’s eyes is worlds removed from being able to take over all of the electrical signals in their brain, not to mention understanding those signals well enough to re-write them. A much more likely fear would be having someone hijack that visual signal, making you see things that aren’t there. But even then, worst case scenario you remove the contact lenses. Problem solved!
All of these short films play on the same fear: being unable to trust your eyes. It’s something we’re not used to, and anything new can be scary at first. But in the same way we’ve learned to be intelligent consumers of other technology, we’ll learn to intelligently interpret the things we see and hear. The future will be full of visual stimuli — it’s up to us to make sure that those interactions are empowering and uplifting.
Written by Wren Handman for www.hammerandtusk.com.