In Blade Runner 2049, much of the world, including some of the people within it, aren’t actually real, but part of an augmented reality. Picture: Warner Bros.
In Blade Runner 2049, much of the world, including some of the people within it, aren’t actually real, but part of an augmented reality. Picture: Warner Bros.

Next billion seconds will change the world

TWO years ago, Australians were the first to be delighted by Pokémon Go, a smartphone app blending the real world - captured by the smartphone camera - with loads of collectible characters, placed into the world around you, via the smartphone screen. This "augmented reality" quickly became the biggest selling mobile title of all time, generating billions of dollars for game-maker Niantic and Pokemon creator Nintendo.

Although it looks brand-new, boffins have been working on augmented reality for fifty years, starting with multimillion-dollar in-helmet displays used by jet fighter pilots that let them easily control a very complex aircraft, while at the same time engaging in supersonic dogfights with the enemy.

It took Steve Jobs and the iPhone to bring the price of augmented reality down to earth: nearly every element of a smartphone can be reassembled into a next-generation augmented reality system that looks something a lot like a fancy pair of sunnies.

Put on those sunnies and what you see is the perfect blend of reality and the imaginary. Sensors and software on those sunnies scan the world around you continuously, mapping all the walls, floors, ceilings, objects and people. Augmented reality needs this constant stream of information so it can place virtual objects into the world seamlessly - whether that's Pokemon or tomorrow's weather forecast.

This is just the beginning.
This is just the beginning.

There's a downside: in order to work well, augmented reality has to be a better surveillance technology than CCTV. It isn't just sending video off to a control room; it's using the best in artificial intelligence to understand where you are, what's around you, what you're doing, and who you're doing it with. Augmented reality could be a goldmine for companies like Google and Facebook that make their money selling data about their users to their advertisers.

So it's no surprise that among the biggest enthusiasts for augmented reality are - wait for it - Google and Facebook. Facebook went all in on augmented reality when they purchased virtual reality pioneers Oculus for $3B back in 2014.

Google has spread its bets, but dumped a lot of cash into tech start-up Magic Leap - one of the most secretive companies in the history of technology. Until last week.

That's when Magic Leap unveiled the first consumer augmented reality product, the Magic Leap One. This first-generation kit may make the wear look a bit like Hans Moleman from The Simpsons, but they promise a seamless experience of augmented reality. No longer will everyone be staring down into their smartphone all day long. Instead, the smartphone screen will cover our eyes, all the time.

There’s already practical use for augmented reality glasses, with Director of trauma at The Alfred, Prof. Mark Fitzgerald developing a prototype of Google Glass, which can be used by ED doctors. Picture: David Caird
There’s already practical use for augmented reality glasses, with Director of trauma at The Alfred, Prof. Mark Fitzgerald developing a prototype of Google Glass, which can be used by ED doctors. Picture: David Caird

Is that a good thing? We're already so absorbed in our smartphones that we frequently walk into traffic without looking up - something our mums warned us against when we were small. Augmented reality kicks that up a notch, making the real world appear far more interesting - and absorbing. That could make us even more distracted.

It also means we have to ensure that these augmented reality sunnies - and the systems they connect into - be very secure.

Imagine walking across an intersection, seeing the walk sign as green - but that's because someone has hacked into your system and changed what you're seeing. It's easy to imagine all sorts of ways augmented reality can ruin someone's day - or worse - in the wrong hands.

We need to consider these points carefully because there's broad agreement among tech futurists that augmented reality is the tech that replaces the smartphone. That'll take around a decade, but by 2030 we can expect most of us to be wearing these amazing reality-blending sunnies most of the time. We'll all be in our own little worlds, seeing the things that matter the most to us. A bit like our Facebook feeds - written onto the world around us.

What will that world be like? That's up to us. We can ask for and design apps that help us to connect with one another, to be more social and, frankly, more human. Or we can withdraw into fantasy realms that leave us increasingly isolated and alone. We've already learned from our smartphone addiction what that can mean - and we can avoid making the same mistake twice. Augmented reality is here. Now we get to create the world we want to see through those magic lenses.

Learn more about augmented reality in my PodcastOne original series, The Next Billion Seconds.


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