Same frames and different pictures — A lonely AR future

The photo above was taken during a shoot for a video prototype. We needed to animate the content inside the frames, so we replaced the photos with green paper to help for the film post-production.

Conversations that day started to happen around how that sight looked quite revelatory of how our future world could appear to our eyes. Are we still going to see the same image when looking at a photograph on the wall, or will our Augmented Reality lenses show each of us different memories, leaving the only frame as our shared, unedited reality?

Major digital companies and countless startups are hard at work to develop Augmented Reality into its full potential. The recent debut of AR in smartphone apps is just the beginning, the first step towards a future where we’ll be wearing devices that instantaneously transform what we see and hear.

That’s why now is the right time to take a moment for reflection and to decide what we want that future to look like. Because if new Augmented Reality experiences will be designed with the same focus on personalisation and maximising engagement of current popular digital products, we will end up living in a world perfectly fitting our individual preferences, but isolated from anybody else, increasingly incapable to see others’ point of view, and ultimately, more lonely.

First, we had digital personalisation

The main premise of Augmented Reality is to change the way we experience the world. But what will this world look like? Without recurring to the dystopian future depicted in the film HYPER-REALITY, if we look at our current technologies and the main companies behind them, we can already see a glimpse of what we are to expect from the AR world they are leading to develop.

Let’s consider for instance maps and directions. A search for generic shops or restaurants on Google Maps returns different results to different people, depending on their past activities. But this geographical personalisation doesn’t stop with a neighbourhood, as Google Maps also shows different versions of state borders, depending on what side you search from.

The Facebook news feed algorithm is designed to show us content that we are most likely to engage with. And although they have recently started to act against publishers that are too aggressive in trying to attract users’ likes, with 98% of Facebook revenue coming from ads, it’s inevitable that its objective to maximise how much time people spend on the platform remains unchanged.

The prevalent trend among digital companies, whether they deal in information like Google and Facebook, in retail (Amazon), or in entertainment (Netflix, Spotify), is to to use algorithms that automatically learn about our preferences in order to give us the experiences we would like the most.

And if in theory, the current availability of products that are personalised for us is one of the biggest achievement of digital technology, as we become more and more immersed in the software-mediated world of Augmented Reality, mindlessly following this approach will lead to problematic consequences.

From glass slabs to the whole world

With Augmented Reality promising to become the next big computing platform, replacing the role that is now of smartphones, companies such as Google and Facebook are inevitably very interested in its development, as is also seen from their investments and research projects.

And it’s not hard to imagine that unless their business model change radically, their future AR products we’ll also be designed with the same principle as their current ones: to give us personalized, engaging experiences that we won’t want to stop.

But Augmented Reality is a way more pervasive medium than smartphones or laptops. What will this quest for engagement look like in always-on systems with the capacity to affect in real time what we see and hear?

We can already imagine some examples: automatic translation products that filter out words we might not like to hear; a mapping system that carefully avoids to take us in areas we would not want to go; and further on, an Augmented Reality vision that hide things in the city we would not like to see, or highlight others we want to see.

We’re now worried by the so-called filter bubble, the state of intellectual isolation caused by online news algorithms selectively choosing what information to show us depending on our past behaviour. But as the same class of algorithms start being used in Augmented Reality experiences, we are to expect a much tighter bubble, potentially around us not just as we are in front of a browser, but in any moment of the day.

Correcting the vision

If we pause for a moment and try not to think of Augmented Reality as just another medium where to reproduce the current design approach used for apps and platforms, we can find promising solutions.

And the key is to consider, early on in the ideation phase, not only the desire and needs of the user at the centre of the experience but also the ones of the people in its surroundings.

Pokémon Go is an interesting example in that respect. By getting people to go outside together hunting for virtual monsters that would appear in specific locations and at specific times — and very importantly, available to capture to all users in that location and time — the app managed to create new occasions for social meetings.

At Uniform we’ve also started to consider this issue and in fact, the project mentioned at the beginning of this article is the first one we did with attention to the topic. Roommate is a concept of a smart home system that changes the content in the digital photo frames, the music system and TV to best fit all the people in the home, through shared tastes and common memories.

We are in a crucial moment for the development of Augmented Reality. As designers, we can influence what the future world will look like and as users, we can do our best to keep aware of what our technological tools are doing to us, so that in 10 years we won’t find ourselves in flashy bubbles of AR, alone.