Augmented reality, diminished humanity?


The accumulation of different technological revolutions in recent years (Internet, miniaturization, mobility, geolocation...) will inexorably lead our digital uses to merge around a synthesis technology: augmented reality. Our smartphones, (tomorrow our glasses), will superimpose (ro)nt to the reality of digital information layers for the greatest excitement of consumers in search of technological paradises and that of advertisers as an exceptional advance in the control of available brain time. Deciphering the implementation process of an advertised technology.

Augmented reality, the decisive cloud of technological paradise

From the appearance of the barcode to the NFC chip, ubiquitous computing promises us an "Internet of Things" in the near future, a world where our everyday objects will interact with us fluidly via digital technologies. Dazzling advances in image recognition allow us to obtain in real time all the information available online about the people, places, or events around us. The widespread use of geolocation data provides access to contextual information with high added value.

Add to this the interactivity of this data via gesture recognition or the innovations of haptic interfaces, as well as their participative improvement (culture stemming from the world of Free Software and Web 2.0) and we have radically modified the potential of digital in our daily lives. But to almost each of these advances corresponds a software standard and a specific hardware interface. To interact with all this data, the "technomad" would need hundreds of different devices to read barcodes, talk with his fridge, locate public toilets or be guided to a flash mob.

This is where augmented reality takes on its full meaning as a "killer interface": by superimposing reality, via a camera, an accelerometer, a compass, a GPS and a screen on our smartphones (and soon in our glasses), augmented reality makes it possible to display in real time layers of "virtual" information about what we see. All this ambient data, all these sensors and information vectors colonize most naturally our main sense of sight, in real time and in 3D.

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Let's add for more immersion earphones for sound, voice or haptic commands for interaction... Only a neural connection would offer a more total digital immersion in this paradise of information.

Uses and state of the art of augmented reality

Augmented reality is a complex technology. Of military origin, it can use a wide variety of technological media, serving most sectors. A few examples of already effective use:

In the field of video games, the fantasy of Transreality-games is no longer just a fantasy. The Nintendo 3DS and Sony Playstation Vita handheld consoles have added cameras, GPS and compasses for this purpose; the Wii U, Xbox's Kinect or Playstation's Move ensure that this technology is also invading our living rooms, for a wide variety of games.

In production and industrial maintenance, it gives engineers and technicians instant access to tutorials, instructions, protocols etc. relating to the current flow, highlighting a part to be changed or steps to do so...

In training, simulators allow firefighters, pianists, surgeons or mechanics to preview the next action to be performed in an immersive virtual setting.

In tourism, the augmented guided tour adds contextual information, the meaning of the visit, etc. Versailles, London, Cluny and many sites are already equipped, sometimes with very original approaches.

In marketing, there are many uses, from coupons to POS, virtual fitting rooms and events, the market is exploding. The best recent operation is Vodafone's BufferBusters in Germany.

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And so on: in terms of uses, the imagination of our companies has and will have no limits.

So when is this revolution? This fledgling market is not quite ready because of the lack of penetration of sufficiently powerful smartphones, the lack of awareness of the technology by the general public and the lack of a standard language for augmented reality, which would allow all layers to be read by the same application.

But each month brings its share of technical innovations and the inconvenience of having to hold the phone in front of you will soon be compensated by the appearance of the RA glasses, video glasses equipped with a discreet camera, connected to the smartphone by Bluetooth or cable...

Mobile AR is already used by many users, and the industrial choices leading to the mass use of augmented reality have been made by the major players in the multimedia markets for years: from mobile manufacturers to application editors, from OS producers to telecom equipment manufacturers and up to the public commissions making it all happen. Within two to three years, mobile AR will be mature and all the uses described above will finally be possible. (See the conference on 4 October 2011 at the Canteen: State of AR)

It is now clear that, barring a major economic disaster, in a few years' time, AR will become massively established. Attractive, isn't it?

It will impose itself even if it brings our societies closer to the cyberpunk nightmares of which science fiction is sorely lacking (Matrix, Terminator, Minority Report, etc.), even if the real and the virtual are mixed up, even if the legislator tears his hair out over insoluble problems, even if our privacy is threatened, even if millions of children become dependent on it... For the phenomena presiding over our unanimous acceptance of a debatable but undiscussed technology have been the same for thousands of years.

From gods to techno-optimism: one sacred to another

Imagination has always accompanied technological advances. The temptation of the "apple" of knowledge, that of Pandora's box, the mastery of fire by Prometheus or the use of the golem Emet... these ancient myths show that the fear of an unlimited use of technology was already present in the roots of our civilizations. And the Apple logo, the biting apple, cynically illustrates this "technological temptation", the temptation of knowledge that led to the scientific method and the death of the gods.

When Science dared to explain the "sacred", it destroyed it and replaced it with this technological ideal, the moving imagination of a humanity capable of anything. Since then, the West has not stopped fuelling its fantasies: technological innovation is the golden calf, the idol of our time. Nothing must stop "innovation", in the name of "progress" whose beauty and brilliance poorly conceals the immense damage. Our disillusioned fascination with cyborgs, however, teaches us that technology being power, its use raises and rests the questions of good and evil; our cyberpunk myths remind us of its dangers...

Nevertheless, we accept technological excesses as inevitable and we delight in a utopian imagination using our future technologies solely for the good. This is the debate on bioethics, nanotechnologies, GMOs, etc., which has been going on for years. Respect for human rights or the environment is not a sufficient reason to question our omnipotence. The precautionary principle would destroy the idol of unlimited humanity.

Why is this imaginary of a necessarily positive technology being shaped? How does it impose itself on the majority of people without any awareness of the real consequences of our technological advances for the planet and its inhabitants, so that we are still so drawn to the next technology (augmented reality?) without even asking ourselves the question of its impact and meaning?

The factory of technological imaginations

Ideologies and religions had produced visions of the future and invented the instruments of propaganda to install them in collective consciousness. Marketing has taken up all these tools and invented others to build a collective imagination for humanity by making it enviable: in a clever concerto with sensitive strings (feeling of omnipotence, ego, communitarianism, sex, etc.), marketers produce a chain of "brand universes" that are none other than the realism of the innovations they sell. In other words, visions "for humanity" of what our daily lives will be like tomorrow. This is the basic principle of advertising: this precious "brain time" that is exposed to brand worlds is the key to the industry's commercial outlets and its constant innovations.

The emergence of NICTs is no coincidence: to intensify this marketing tour de force, it was necessary to multiply the access points to the brain by selling off and making daily technological jewels, Trojan horses of imaginary standardization, such as radios, TVs, computers, mobile phones and, soon, augmented reality supports. NICTs, of which augmented reality is a part, are as many entry points that marketing uses to sell its sauce, and which our merchants need the most. The disappearance of the borders between real and virtual that the use of augmented reality provokes, and the total immersion it offers are the blessed bread of a new generation of advertisers. This technology is therefore not a simple "product innovation" which would have its time, it is an evolution of NICTs particularly effective in terms of advertising, which guarantees its standardization in our daily lives.

Using and abusing our almost mystical positivist tendencies, persuading the legislator of the "economic" interest to implant more and more NICTs, the champions of augmented reality have won the upper hand and our daily newspapers will be increased, with all the advantages and disadvantages. It is therefore up to us, citizens, hackers and members of the civil society, to guarantee its respectful use, to appropriate its strengths and to fight its excesses.

To follow the information on augmented reality, a good twitter account : @paris_AR

Article published in the magazine / Pablo Grandjean

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