Blog: Augmented Reality Fieldview 2020 – Part III


What is the current state of the human endeavour in digitally augmenting our world? Moreover, in considering where we are today, how have we arrived at this point, and where will our efforts lead? To understand the augmented reality (AR) ecosystem in 2020, we must rewind a decade and project half as far into the future. 

Before we dive into the state of AR in 2020, we must first have a mutual understanding of what AR is, and equally importantly, what it is not. Herein, we will define these terms as follows:

Virtual Reality (VR) : Using traditional displays and rendered environments to simulate other world

Augmented Reality (AR): Using transparent displays to overlay additional layers on the real world

Extended/Cross Reality (XR): Using a synthesis of either or both approachesIn this discussion, we will break the development of AR into three distinct epochs. Each of these phases of development are marked with distinct features and are additive over time. While there are a series of small and medium sized players that ebb and flow, throughout it all are a handful of whales that have directed the entire ecosystem in profound ways, the culmination of which we will begin to experience in the new decade. 

The three eras of AR growth and proliferation can be described comparably to the trajectory of an individual startup, only extrapolated to an industry scale. In the fledgeling stage of seeding (2010-2019), the incumbents surveyed the field, made their initial bets, and formulated long term strategies; simultaneously a handful of unknown and untested ventures arose of their own accord. Once the initial field was cemented, the second phase of development (2020-2022) could begin, wherein the existing players began to cross pollinate through the transfer of personnel, flow of intellectual property, and acquisition or merger of smaller entities. In the ultimate stage, we will finally reap the benefits of synthesizing our analog and digital worlds when these structures come to fruition (2023-2025); brought on by a final charge of rapid Pac-Manning of smaller corporations and commercial deployment to large parts of the domestic, and then global, populations.

Era III – Fruition

How will our species react when the seeds of new worlds we’ve planted come to fruition and we can harvest the produce of our efforts? With AR as such a powerful extension of the self, the path forward forks into ascendance and perdition. Just as the personal computer and smartphone before it, augmented reality will shift the world in fundamental and profound ways. In order to grapple with these shifting sands and their implications, we can turn to our lived experience of the rise of smartphones over the past decade. In addition to our personal proclivities, we can also look at the ways in which the industry titans have positioned themselves and how they perceive success. 

As covered in parts I and II of this series, it is clear that the major hardware players in the AR space, namly Magic Leap, Microsoft, and Apple, have all taken up distinct market niches and have differentiated product architectures and archetypes to match. 

Magic Leap, which started out in the same lane as Apple with the hopes of targeting mass consumer markets, may instead ultimately be a core component of business culture. With the new leadership team installed under the direction of Peggy Johnson, Magic Leap is on a steady trajectory deep into the global enterprise markets. While this isn’t a consumer oriented strategy, it is important to keep backwards propagation in mind, wherein the American public eventually takes up technologies initially intended for the business sector.

Apple will use their existing ecosystem and customer base to parlay a rapid stepwise shift in culture and society at large. The groundwork they’ve been laying since the 2017 release of AR Kit 1 and the iPhone X will finally give rise to the full AR monolith they’ve been quietly fabricating. This could come in the form of either iGlasses or an iVisor, depending on which sources we listen to, but in either case there will be sudden and rapid adoption of AR in the mass markets. If the constrained and simple Pokemon Go craze of 2016 is any indication, there will be a societal mania around this that may verge on hysterics. For Apple, AR will mean continuing and furthering their partiality for the sleek, the utilitarian, and the lovable, even if that comes at the expense of power and advanced feature sets. 

Finally, when we look at Microsoft’s endgame, we see AR in its fullest and most robust form. This is the AR of both dreams and nightmares. Microsoft started its Hololens line with business applications at heart, but the final form of this product is just beginning to coalesce around another entity entirely, the military. An important and unique window into the future of augmented combat exists in the form of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) contract for an Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), which after a fierce battle with Magic Leap and other providers, was ultimately awarded to Microsoft in the fall of 2018. There has been a remarkable and uncharacteristic amount of transparency around IVAS, and in the language for this $480M contract are some fascinating and terrifying specifications.

To dive into a handful of the features that could have been torn from a comic book or sci fi novel, the IVAS will include capabilities such as vision magnification, alternative spectrum viewing (infrared and night vision), target tracking, mapping, situational awareness enhancements, environment and scenario simulation, command control, networking, communications, assessments of readiness and performance, as well as medical diagnostics. This feature set serves to increase the lethality of an individual soldier, highlighting just how potent a magnification of abilities AR devices can provide, and how imbalanced the relationship is between a wearer and non-wearer.

All of these plans, and others beyond the scope of this discussion, point towards an AR future; how bright or how dreary that future is, is now up to us.

The Panopticon and the Palantir

Before us, the path forks. The promise of an augmented reality is tantalizing, but our attraction to the promises of sweet fruits blinds us to the possible rotten cores inside. AR, like its previous embodiments as the personal computer, tablet, and smartphone, provisions the individual with previously untold knowledge and power. This, however, is not always the blessing it may seem. Indeed, most of us do not use our smartphones to write the next Great American Novel or research novel therapeutics for malignant conditions, though we could. Instead, we let our computational companions guide us towards controversy, obsession, and division. AR holds these pitfalls as well, and may indeed exacerbate them far beyond any form we’ve witnessed in the world to date. How we navigate these promises and the pitfalls in the next five years will in turn shape our society in the century to come. 

For guidance through this dark forest of the infernal and sublime, we can turn to an unlikely pre-technical source, Tolkien. In his construct of Middle Earth are two exemplars of deep vision, the Panopticon and the Palantíri.

The Panopticon

The first path forward, the default way and the left-hand path, leads us further into the darkness of the woods. If we let AR evolve unconsciously and of its own accord, the uses and abuses of this technology will be manifold. AR fundamentally provides its user with additional information not available to those without access to a system. Whether this is visual, audio, or otherwise, at the core, the wearer of an AR system possesses inherently more power and potential than a non-user. This is certainly problematic, especially when we consider how access to AR will likely be distributed. No technology is free, and those who are privy to the bleeding edge will use these abilities to further widen the trench between themselves and the rest. Taking up AR was harmless when catching a Pokemon was the greatest outcome, but when things like attention, perception, and health are at stake, it is of paramount importance that this power not be concentrated. When an AR user turns their gaze on an unequipped other, there is no mirroring or reciprocity, only probing and piercing. Perhaps the AR user can pull up the other’s social media profiles, embarrassing news stories, or can see an unfavorable overlap in social circles. 

This vision of an AR future would turn each individual into a tiny Sauron, surveying the world around them from their high tower with impunity. As the Eye of Sauron shifts across the land, those caught up in its gaze are compelled to fear. This is also how the Panopticon, as originally conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1785, functioned; with a central point of power projecting outward, imprisoning everything its light (or gaze) touches. There is also an important dichotomy between those that are forcibly illuminated and the inherently obscured and opaque nature of the central source of light. As Michel Foucault notes in Discipline and Punishment (1975) of those imprisoned by a Panopticon; “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” There is a fundamental and uneasy asymmetry of power between the user and their subject when gaze is unidirectional. 

The Panopticon

We’ve caught whiffs of this already with the 2014 release of Google Glass. The vast majority of society was glass-less and resultantly had a distrust of those equipped with the devices. They mistrusted whether they were being constantly recorded, whether their information was being scrapped from the web, or something even more wicked. Ultimately, and with the clarity of hindsight, it is transparent that these fears were overblown and Google Glass was not a source of societal upending. This doesn’t mean the next device won’t change the way we view and experience one another for the worse. 

The Palantír

Unlike the Panopticon; a singular source from which power is projected outward, there is hope for beneficial AR in the form of the Palantír (not to be confused with Peter Theil’s eponymous firm, Palantir). Rather than the unidirectional probing and prodding of outward facing sensors, a palantír, or seeing stone, works in both directions and holds mutual space for both parties. The palantíri are a set of seven fictional crystalline orbs created by Tolkein for his fantasy universe. Appearing in the Lord of the Rings films and books, a palantír is used by Sauruman to commune with Lord Sauron. While this context lends a certain air of evil to the orbs, they themselves are truly neutral and not inherently nefarious. If the palantíri were a tech company in 2020, they would fall under the protections of Section 230 and would be considered a neutral platform, not a potentially partisan publisher. 

Equal footing is essential for developing truly beneficial technology. This is true in society at large, but is notably exacerbated in a medical context wherein patients are inherently disadvantaged and clinicians are default power brokers. No one holds more power over an individual than those who stave off death and determine a path towards wellness. It would be one thing to have a doctor use an AR device to scan or view their patient, but by providing both patient and doctor with AR headsets, they can access a mutual augmented space, thereby leveling the playing field. The sharing of space can happen in the same room or across thousands of miles during a telemedicine visit. 

Sharing space equally has some remarkably powerful implications for breaking down the power gradient at play in the patient-clinician relationship. Collapsing space, sharing information, and visualizing data in concert has the potential to make care far more personal and intimate. This is beneficial from the simple perspective of bedside manner, but also alleviates some of the deeper problems plaguing healthcare today. Doctors continually get less and less facetime with their patients, even when sharing a room, as their attention is dedicated to a screen for either data entry or results review. This perceived inattention, and particularly the lack of eye contact, has a real and detrimental impact on patient outcomes. By eliminating screens entirely, AR holds real promise to bridge the patient-clinician rift that has gaped wider as the twenty-first century has progressed. 

As we wind our way forward along this obscured road, it is paramount that we do so together, in community. AR holds huge potential for creation, but all creation must be conducted in harmony with others, and never as a solus ipse. If we can ensure that AR is accessible by the many, not just the few, then we have some hope for building better worlds atop the foundations of our current reality. If we stray into games of power, exclusivity, and privilege, AR will only further exacerbate the problems we currently face. Therein, the cure we seek for our modern illness, in the form of greater reach, more intimacy, and deeper connection, could ultimately make our condition worse, in an iatrogenic reaction. We must combat this at all costs by creating mutual space, shared experience, and an equal footing. We must ensure that AR is open, accessible, and ubiquitous. Only then can we ascend.