Pokemon is Pong for the Augmented-Reality Era


One day, we’re all going to look back at this current Pokemon mania and laugh. We’ll remember the rush, the giggles, the addictive delight of scanning a park with our phone cameras only to find a little monster laughing at us. And it will all seem so quaint.

I say this because, after reading Kevin Kelly’s Wired recent article on Magic Leap, I’m convinced that augmented reality will become our dominant technological interface. The technology isn’t there yet, but count me in the camp of people like Ray Kurzweil who think that Moore’s law will remain intact, meaning computing power will continue to increase exponentially for the foreseeable future. I’m also optimistic about advances in materials science, energy storage, and wireless communication, all of which will be necessary for the ubiquitous AR devices I envision.

Once all the bugs are worked out, here’s what I imagine our lives will look like:

You wake up to the sound of birds chirping, a distant church bell ringing, or the roar of the ocean surf, whatever you’d set as the wakeup tone for your earbuds, which you wear continuously, except for maybe in the shower. Before your eyes are fully open, you slip your AR glasses over your head. They are transparent except for a thin metallic line – above your field of vision, of course – that houses all of their computing and communicating components. You’re not much of fashionplate, so you have a clear plastic set that are nearly invisible to anyone who isn’t looking for them. They are so light and comfortable that you barely notice that they’re there anymore.

You get dressed and leave your house into the gloom of an overcast Chicago fall day. The sky has held a low gray ceiling of cloud for weeks now, and you’re sick of it, so you call up a sunny-day program. The clouds evaporate, and brilliant yellow light floods the street ahead of you, glinting off windows, filtering through the trees’ autumn leaves. The illusion is so real that your brain fills in the other senses for you; you feel its warmth on your skin.

You step into the coffee shop, where the wait time and a list of the day’s specials hovers outside the door. You order your drink and sit down. The shop’s system alerts you that it’s running a sim of a Florentine café overlooking the Arno River.

“Accept?” the prompt asks you.

“Yes,” you reply.

The walls drop away, and the street outside is replaced by a languid river. Your table is now outdoors, shaded by an umbrella. You hear the distant honk of scooter horns and the faint, metallic wheeze of a cheerful accordion tune.

You call up your newspaper, which floats in your hands, and you turn the pages to get to your favorite columnist, each flip making an unmistakable paper sound. Again, your brain is so thoroughly tricked that you swear you can feel the newsprint between your thumb and index finger.

Your glasses prompt you that the next bus to your office is almost there, so you leave the paper and rush out the door. Once you have your seat, you call the paper back up, and it’s already opened to the page you were reading.

No matter what you do for work, your glasses will figure prominently into your job. Programmer? They will spot errors in your code as you commit them. Editor? Blink at a word for synonyms. Bank teller? They will sense a customer’s elevated pulse and dilated pupils and will alert the security guards, just in case he’s a robber. I could go on, but the occupational possibilities of this technology are endless, and I imagine them being required hardware for most jobs, similar to needing to be able to check your work email outside of the office.

After a long day of work, you meet some friends afterward at the sports bar to unwind. The Bulls are playing and the bar’s bleacher section is running a sim of upper-deck seats, so you and some friends sit in the makeshift bleachers and watch the players race up and down the floor a hundred feet below you, their shoes squeaking amid the cheers of the fans in the stadium.

Your girlfriend calls midgame, so you break out of the sim, both so you can hear her and your friends can no longer hear you. She’s at a club on the North Side that’s running a 1950s sim. It dresses all the girls in pink skirts, and the dudes get leather jackets and slicked-up hair. You pass. Last week you had a bad experience when your rave-going younger brother brought you out to that club downtown. The sim there had everyone emanating blue flames, and at one point the floor and walls dropped out, sending you plunging through space, only to halt you on Saturn’s rings right as the bass kicked in. You nearly hurled. The Grease experience sounds nice, but you’re not up for another full-immersion sim just yet.

You make plans to meet at home later, and you even call a cashier from your favorite restaurant into the bar to order takeout for later.

That night, you sit down together with some pad thai, blow the roof off your living room and chat under the starry skies until it’s time to go to bed. But heck. It’s a beautiful night. You don’t usually sleep in your glasses, but why not keep the roof off and sleep under the stars.

As you may have noticed from that thought experiment, the main advantage AR has over full virtual reality is that you can still interact with the real world. You don’t have to retreat from it into some kind of padded room.You take it with you as you participate in your real life, enhancing and improving the world you interact with every day.

You also might have noticed that no one whipped out a phone at any point during that day. There will be no need. Just as our smartphones have replaced our wall phones, cameras, video cameras, calendars, rolodexes, and gaming systems, our glasses-and-earbuds AR systems will replace our smartphones and our television screens, as well as many other physical objects that can just as easily be rendered through the technology.

So who am I to make this kind of prediction? No one, really. I don’t work in tech. I don’t code. I’m not a venture capitalist. I don’t have any special insights into the companies who make these devices.

I’m just a science fiction author who’s writing a book set in a world in which many of these advances have come to pass. This means I’ve spent a lot of time imagining the possibilities and gaming out the implications of this technology. Frankly, the possibilities fascinate me, and there’s a strong chance this technology will feature prominently in many of my stories to come.

There’s also a great chance I’m wrong. Maybe our computers move inside our bodies, as Kurzweil and many others expect, and the idea of glasses and earbuds will seem hilariously retrograde. Or maybe we hit a certain threshold of computing power, and before we know it there’s a great flash of light, and we’re all luminous pan-dimensional beings who start crafting personal universes for our own amusement.

Then I’ll look back on this blog post and think, “Isn’t that cute?”

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