The Economy of Attention

Dispatches from the Augmented Frontier

Dan Archer
Jul 16, 2014 · 5 min read

Robert Scoble opens proceedings at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara with a keynote to a packed auditorium of rapt attendees.

Actual human interaction, however, is minimal.

Scole, a senior liason at the cloud computing company Rackspace, gave a talk titled “The Age of Context” — a nod to the increasing ubiquity of these devices in our lives. Which raises other important points about mobile sensors, data and the future of privacy.

Commerce may soon come to fully dominate the present, proffering suggestions, distractions and potentials for you based on where you are, what you’re doing, or who you’re with. It’s not profitable to leave people literally to their own devices.

Scoble’s tone is evangelical in its wholesale acceptance of technological innovation: a digital manifest destiny/gold rush mentality that combines pioneer spirit with an unspoken faith in the free market.

It’s not just the geofenced borders of the digital frontiers that are being erected; Our own bodies and even emotions are the next territories these technologies have in their sights.

We’re bare-facedly into the realm of consumer manipulation at this point, closing the marketing Ouroboros that the father of PR, Edward Bernays, dreamt up about how to convince consumers to buy things they don’t need. Or at least leave them in consumer limbo, where the only thing that is real is the desire for something they don’t have.

Any moral or ethical concern is duly tempered with a slide of Gandhi, not the first time the great ascetic icon has been co-opted by Silicon Valley.

Given the 5 minute TED Talk-style presentation window each of the speakers is given, the audience barely has time to think about the ethical ramifications of what Nir’s implying before the big guns come out: namely Meta, the jewel in the augmented reality crown and host to the opening night’s exclusive VIP party.

The AR glasses market is split into a handful of major players: Google glass, Epson, and Metaio—all of which promise a futuristic synthesis of reality overlaid with real-time data. Their concept videos look very promising but the reality of the prototypes we’re allowed to try out still have a ways to go. I was able to don the Meta headset and burst seemingly holographic asteroids by piercing them with my finger, but it was a country mile away from feeling like Iron Man inventor Tony Stark (who was named checked in almost every presentation).

To my mind, the most promising application of augmented reality lay in the embedded overlays and animations that I saw fused with traditional drawings and diagrams to create holographic embellishments. The application for companies like Daqri (below, with an interactive biology textbook)…

…or Drawn and Code (whose Miyazaki-esque contraption chugged and sputtered into life with animated smoke on a mobile/tablet device) into the educational sphere was plain to see:

The prominence of Unity, a versatile 3D game engine, was also hard to ignore, especially given Facebook’s recent purchase of “Oculus Rift” — a head mounted display that aims to bring VR into our homes over the next few years. The expo hall was a funny mix of established Silicon Valley corporations and indie start up teams, one of which was couple of guys from Galicia, Spain, who have 3D printed their own version of a virtual reality headset.

Alex from Thalmic Labs, maker of the Myo band, takes the interface idea one step further:

Admittedly I did feel pretty high tech, even if all I was doing was changing the size of a photo on an ipad.

The extension of peripheral electronics is their incorporation into our clothes, best summarized by a panel “Wearable Tech: high tech meets high fashion.” Again, there’s a lot of posturing but even Richard Kerslake, Director of Strategy for new devices group at Intel, admits that:

Perhaps a throwaway comment, but one that highlights the essential smoke and mirrors of this industry. For all the freedom this augmented technology affords users, its main objective is our wallets, not our well-being. Is surrendering personal space and privacy a worthwhile trade for access to such embryonic services? Or is tracking of your daily gestures, movements and emotions via facial recognition simply the price you have to pay for access to this new reality?

Ori Inbar, the founder of the AWE back in 2010, is adamant:

But the world on show at the convention center, with its glitz and cutting-edge tech, is hardly representative of the real world. If I’m honest, I’m no less skeptical than when I arrived. Probably more, as today’s talks and tech have only reinforced my concerns over consumer privacy at both the individual and public levels. This (or at least the latter point) is apparently nothing new to Scoble, who says as much as he wraps up his talk:

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The Nib

Political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and non-fiction. Words plus pictures.

Thanks to Matt Bors and The Nib

    Dan Archer

    Written by

    Founder of Empathetic Media, an XR media agency. Graphic Journalist, Creative Technologist, Tow Fellow ‘17, RJI Fellow ‘15, Knight Fellow ‘11.

    The Nib

    The Nib

    Political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and non-fiction. Words plus pictures.

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