< Sixth Sense


Friday, November 20, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The December issue of Esquire features a familiar face on the cover, Robert Downey, Jr. It also features a less familiar technology, augmented reality or AR. Hold up the Esquire cover to a webcam and a video version of the actor pops out onto your computer screen.

ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. Booya! in your face! We are presently entwined in an AR environment, easily the most remarkable way to experience a magazine.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tilt the magazine and the digital Downey reacts. Some inside pages feature similar stunts. Augmented reality officially hit the iPhone in August. There were apps that utilized its GPS and camera capabilities to overlay information, say, restaurant reviews, onto your nearby surroundings. They can help you locate everything from historic landmarks to houses for sale, even people. Plus, there are AR action figures, children’s books, baseball cards, business cards. In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise uses a version of augmented reality to solve murders before they happen. Standing in front of a large semitransparent screen, Cruise, wearing sensory-equipped gloves, waves his arms around to push and pull images.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Time horizon, 12 minutes.

NEIL McDONOUGH AS FLETCHER: All right, what he’s doing now we call scrubbing the image, looking for clues as to where the murder’s going to happen.

STEVE HARRIS AS JAD: Near the Capitol?



BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film is set in 2054. Now, 45 years prior, a Minority Report¬¬-inspired device is already being developed at MIT. The device combines a smart phone, a camera and a mini-projector to access and project the virtual world onto the physical one. But, in a recent commentary for Atlantic Magazine, futurist Jamais Cascio says it won't be too long before we'll all have some kind of AR.

JAMAIS CASCIO: Looking forward, it’s very likely that we will see this kind of technology integrated into something a bit more convenient to look through, that is, a pair of glasses. There’s a science fiction story by Vernor Vinge where people have augmented reality technology integrated onto contact lenses and, in fact, there are people working on that very technology right now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your piece for The Atlantic, you said that spam will inevitably trickle into the commercial augmented reality world. I guess we can't avoid it, can we?

JAMAIS CASCIO: Fortunately, part of the power of the digital world is that it’s given us new tools to be able to filter out the ads. We will also be developing the tools to filter what we see in reality.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, not just block out spam that goes into your device or your glasses but to block out actual billboards on the roadway?

JAMAIS CASCIO: As this technology develops, it will include the ability to identify what it sees through its camera. And what that will include, of course, is the ability to identify posters and billboards and book covers and whatever else kind of visual cues around the environment. And if you have that ability, well, then it’s just one small step to the capacity to block out the things that you don't want to see.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And from there we get to what seems to me the really dark side of this technology. If it can recognize a billboard, it can recognize a face, which could increase our ability to filter out everything from the world that we don't like.

JAMAIS CASCIO: As I began to think about the consequences of this new technology, it struck me that these same kinds of patterns that we've been seeing in our online lives already, that is, patterns around spam and spam blocking and patterns around the use of these technologies for, in some cases, political divisions, it seemed obvious to me that these would come together in a way that would actually allow people to block out political opponents, people with whom they disagree; they just can remove them from their view.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, you’re walking down the street and you see somebody who supports a position you don't like, and you've adjusted your augmented reality glasses so that a little black dot covers up their face?

JAMAIS CASCIO: Right. You don't want to make them invisible, I mean, which eventually you might be able to have technology that could do that, because you don't want to run into ‘em, of course, but you want to have some way of identifying this is someone that I don't want to talk to, someone whose political or social positions I find abhorrent and I don't want to accidentally run into them and engage them in conversation. I don't want to make it sound like it’s only this kind of scary future but, as with every technology we develop, there are inevitably negative, surprising consequences that emerge alongside the, you know, broad social benefits.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you anticipate some - well, nothing short of moral panic over this technology.

JAMAIS CASCIO: You'll get stories highlighting the social conflict aspects, and you will have people who are railing in front of Congress about we need to stop this. We'll have a parents’ augmented reality research group springing up, wanting to have mandatory filters on any kind of augmented reality tool aimed at children.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When do you anticipate that this kind of augmented reality technology will be sufficiently entrenched to engender that kind of moral panic?

JAMAIS CASCIO: Probably, when it is easy to use surreptitiously. You know, right now if I hold up my iPhone with an AR program on it, it’s pretty obvious what I'm doing. But if I have an augmented reality system embedded in my sunglasses, no one would be able to tell just at a glance that I'm actually scanning my environment and being able to identify people and places and things.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re carrying a concealed weapon.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Jamais.

JAMAIS CASCIO: Thank you very much.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamais Cascio is a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.