Imagine a metropolis without ads, billboards, and flashing lights. A city without visual clutter vying for your attention. Such a place exists, and it’s called São Paulo. With new technologies, the rest of the world could soon look the same. Whether that’s a good thing? That’s still up for debate.
In 2007, the Brazilian city of São Paulo adopted a law that cleared its public space of commercial messages. Under the Clean City Law, the municipality took down 15 thousand billboards. Vistas and buildings that had been hidden by advertisements for years emerged from the shadows. With a single law, the city changed the appearance of its reality.
In the context of neoliberal urbanism, the transformation of São Paulo seems exceptional, yet the future of cities all over the world could look similar. Thanks to recent advancements in imaging technologies, changing the appearance of our surroundings will no longer require legislation. In the world of augmented reality, anyone can simply equip their neighborhood with an ad-blocking extension. And that’s just the start.
Why augmented reality is here to stay
It’s a good year for augmented reality (AR). The technology, which blends the physical world with virtual elements, continues to make headlines. Google recently announced ARCore, a platform for building augmented reality apps on Android. Earlier this summer, Apple released a similar framework.
With both Apple and Google integrating AR into their operating systems, there is sufficient reason to believe in the rapid adoption of augmented reality:
The biggest players are on board. Together, Android and iOS account for 99.7% of smartphone operating systems. Even though Google’s AR platform supports only a handful of recent models, the tech giants’ commitment allows widespread adoption further down the line.
All you need is a mobile phone. Although the use of AR isn’t limited to mobile devices, a smartphone is enough to enjoy its benefits. This is an advantage over virtual reality (VR), which currently requires bulky, expensive accessories.
People love AR. Most people have already experienced augmented reality, even if they’re not aware of it. Snapchat, Instagram, and Pokémon Go rely on AR to create more engaging experiences. The popularity of the effects in these apps shows the technology’s potential.
Despite the popularity of Snapchat and Pokémon GO, the use for AR extends far beyond entertainment. As augmented reality stands on the verge of entering the mainstream, we should start thinking about how AR might affect our lives in the long run.
Three ways of manipulating reality
“To augment” means “to increase the size or value of something by adding something to it.” While AR is, indeed, often used to add things to reality, the technologies that power it can do much more. There are three (often intersecting) ways of manipulating our perception of reality with digital tools:
Adding things to reality. With motion tracking, it's possible to add a layer on top of reality. This is how IKEA lets you place virtual furniture inside your living room.
Changing things in reality. Once we add image recognition to the mix, it's possible to start modifying specific objects. This is what happens in Snapchat’s morphing filters and “beautifying” photo apps. Because the software knows it’s seeing a face, it can change particular features of that face.
Currently, augmentation and modification are the most common use of reality-altering technologies. It’s tempting to stay on these tracks when predicting the future, but by doing so, we’re overlooking another kind of manipulation. This third type has a potential that’s just as big, if not bigger:
Removing things from reality. When using digital technologies to take things away from our perception, we enter diminished reality. Instead of adding elements to a space, we make particular elements disappear. Noise-canceling headphones are a good example of diminished reality.
Removing things from the world allows for a more focused experience of your surroundings. This way, diminished reality could provide a much-needed antidote to sensory overload.
Your glasses will fill in the blanks
Say there’s a windmill ruining your otherwise splendid view of the countryside. What if you could simply employ computer technology to erase the windmill from your view? The mill would retain its place in objective reality, while disappearing only from your perception of that reality.
To wipe out the windmill, you'll have to mediate your view of the world through an AR-enabled device. Constantly holding a phone in front of your face isn’t sensible, so you’re better off with a pair of smartglasses. Think Google Glass, Microsoft’s HoloLens, or the more advanced, more fashionable alternatives that will surely follow soon.
Thanks to image recognition and machine learning, future generations of smartglasses will be able to identify windmills from all possible angles. Once they've spotted your windmill, the glasses can generate real-time visuals to project in its place. It'll look something like this:
In theory, this process could make anything disappear. All it takes is a device that’s able to recognize an object and generate visuals to fill in the blanks. Given that these tools already exist, it's only a matter of time before we'll see them in glasses. Diminished reality is getting real.
Diminished reality can empower individuals
Through its billboard ban, São Paulo decided to liberate its streets from visual clutter. In other words: the city chose to diminish a part of its reality. Millions of internet users do a similar thing with browser extensions known as ad blockers. Although these two methods are different (offline and collective legislation versus digital and individual ad blockers), their goal is the same: a reality that's less intrusive.
Smartglasses will let anyone identify and remove visual noise in real-time. That's why AR-technologies could be a powerful tool in making the world a better place to live. Using AR for personal ad-blocking would empower individuals, circumventing the need for complex, collective measures like in São Paulo.
Deleting your ex in the blink of an eye
The ability to clear the world of visual noise may sound like a blessing, but the power to change reality comes with great responsibility. After all, if smartglasses can recognize a windmill or an ad, they can also identify human beings.
In the “White Christmas” episode of Black Mirror, people wear an intelligent ocular implant. One feature of this “Z-Eye” is the ability to “block” people from your field of view. Once blocked, they turn into a muted, pixelated blur that prevents them from communicating with you. Using more advanced image processing, one could even generate background visuals to replace this blur. This would essentially remove someone from your reality.
In the Black Mirror episode, we see the story of a woman who blocks her ex-partner after a big fight about their unborn child. In a world without the Z-Eye, the two would have had to find some kind of resolution together. But thanks to her eye implant, the woman can pretend her ex never even existed.
One could describe such a “block” as a measure of autonomy. At the same time, the Z-Eye lets people evade certain responsibilities. If you can make anything disappear, you’ll no longer have to face things that make you uncomfortable. On a societal level, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Reality is no private affair
We might be tempted to say it’s fair for someone to block those that bother them, but where should we draw the line? With advanced reality-technologies, anything or anyone deemed undesirable or aesthetically unfit could be made invisible. What if people start using AR to exclude certain classes or ethnicities from their reality?
This is where AR becomes political. If people filter their audiovisual perception according to their respective social preferences, can we still speak of a shared reality? Public life is founded on the ability to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. The filter bubbles of diminished reality could mean the end of a truly public sphere. And that’s not the only problem.
Everybody wants to rule the virtual world
When São Paulo introduced its ad-blocking legislation, the ad industry revolted because the law harmed its interests. But, the industry had to deal with the decision because a democratically elected body imposed the rule. After all, urban reality is under democratic control.
But who owns our virtual, augmented, and diminished realities? Who will decide whether people can apply a racist algorithm to own view of the world? Should public law penetrate private filter bubbles? Will your smartglasses allow you to block ads if Google’s business model depends on it?
In short: who will decide what’s allowed to be real and what’s not?
Right now, Google and Apple have full control over the kinds of apps they allow in their app stores. Likewise, Facebook (very prudishly) decides what content is appropriate for its platforms. It’s likely that the same handful of corporations will want to curate augmented and diminished reality.
Here’s the crux of the problem: AR is not just another digital product. It’s a new reality. If we don’t question AR’s platform dynamics, our new reality could be at the mercy of corporate interests. After the democratic struggles of the past centuries, that seems wasteful and naive. Remember net neutrality? It’s time to start thinking about reality neutrality.
The future of reality is in our hands
The implementation of technologies that meddle with reality is inherently political. We should thus treat it as such. Despite the empowering potential of diminished reality, we should acknowledge that any process of selection is arbitrary. As advanced AR-technologies allow the emergence of selective realities, we’ll have to confront the social and political dilemmas that accompany it.
Furthermore, we should remember that progress is never a straight line towards an inevitable destination. The fact that something is possible doesn’t mean it will (or should) happen. There's always a choice. People have been and will remain critical of which technologies they allow in their lives. Time Well Spent is a good example of a such a re-assessment of our relation to technology.
The future of reality is open-ended, but that doesn’t mean our hands are tied. Together, we’ll need to discuss what it means to live in a public society and what role we want our technology to play. Whether we embrace or reject digital realities, we’ll have to take responsibility for our actions.
One thing's for sure: reality won’t be what it used to be. But at least we have a say in what it might become.
Want to learn more about the way technology affects the way we live? Read how blockchain technology could make our elections a little safer.