Augmented Reality: Greater Power, Greater Responsibility
Augmented reality (AR) is technology designed to enhance the physical world by integrating digital images into or on top of it. These composite experiences are often delivered through a heads-up display built into glasses or goggles, or in its current nascent form, via a smartphone camera.
AR differs from VR (virtual reality) in the way it integrates with the physical world. VR is a completely digital experience not tied to reality, like playing an immersive video game. AR, on the other hand, directly modifies a person’s experience of the real world.
This deep integration of the real and the digital has been a long-discussed potential future but to date, the technology has been unable to deliver on the hype. Beyond a few prominent examples like Pokémon Go and Snapchat filters, much of the current AR offerings live on the edges of consumer awareness, a playground for early adopters and tech enthusiasts, with most implementations leaning more toward flashy eye candy than actual useful applications. This will not be the case for long. Over the next five to ten years we will see an inflection point in the quality of AR products and subsequent growth in consumer adoption.
Mainstream adoption of AR will change the face of the digital landscape and, just as the smartphone did before it, will rewrite the way we behave and engage with each other and the world around us. This has interesting potential, but also significant risk.
Despite its sci-fi-like appearance, at its core, AR is just an extension of the web we already use. Today we interface with the network through screens on our desks, in our pockets, or on our wrists. Tomorrow, if the promise of AR holds up, we’ll interface through a persistent digital overlay affixed directly in front of our eyes, forever blurring the lines between the real and the digital and enabling a world of perpetual connection where we never log off.
In a vacuum, this could be an exciting proposition with a lot of possibilities. But AR doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists in a world where we’ve created a web that is boiling over with unintended consequences and accelerating negative effects on individuals and society. A world where we’ve effectively hidden our heads in the sand and made little effort to change any of the fundamental tenets and practices that got us here. If we make the same choices in the development of AR that we have made in the development of the web, we are effectively doubling down on our mistakes and setting ourselves up to exponentially increase the damage they’ve caused.
A world of persistent personalization
Personalization has become the go-to operating system for the web. In an unending sea of information and choice, algorithmic personalization is the most ubiquitous tool currently used to help people make sense of it all. But this approach carries tremendous downsides.
The personalized web is causing us to retreat into ever-tightening content echo-chambers of sameness. Our choices are actively reduced based on past behavior (“because you watched this, you might also like this”), and our beliefs, whether true or not, are reinforced by algorithms that actively promote misinformation and programmatically eliminate opposing viewpoints, driving ideological wedges between us.
Technology isn’t something that happens to us; it is something we choose to create.
While this may not have been completely intentional, the systems we’ve created key off of an inherent evolutionary bias. It’s in our nature to retreat from difference. We find comfort and perceived safety in sameness. There is even some evidence that suggests sameness releases reward hormones in our brain. Evolutionarily, something that is different represents something unknown and unpredictable. This makes it potentially dangerous, and danger is to be avoided. Our subconscious fear primes us to be drawn to information that confirms our beliefs and to seek sanctuary in like-minded, predictable spaces. This tendency has been turbocharged by technology platforms desperate for our attention in a win-at-all-costs war for user engagement.
The web connects us to billions of people, with limitless potential for discovery, growth, and empathy. But we have chosen to design systems that instead drive increasing isolation, deepening divides between groups and making it ever more challenging to come together on common ground. Augmented reality has the potential to accelerate this trend.
A mediated life
While the web is already ubiquitous and easily accessible, there is still a buffer between it and the real world. To engage online, we have to break from other experiences and disappear into a screen. This buffer, while small, means that face-to-face conversations and shared in-person experiences still happen in a reality unmediated by digital technology. The goal of augmented reality is to remove this buffer completely and create an ever-present digital overlay on the world. No need to pull out a screen when the world is your screen.
As AR capabilities progress, not only will we have seamless access to all of our existing streams of information, but we will also be able to increasingly personalize every second of our existence.
With AR glasses, we could see the make, model, price, and local availability of every car that drives by. We could see the price and brand of every piece of clothing on every person. We could change the color and style of everyone’s clothes. We could walk through a world full of magical creatures and fictional characters. We could create an “imaginary” friend who is with us all the time, but who only we can see. Billboards and posters could morph to only show products and ads personalized to us. Magazine covers could shift and change based on our interests. We could put a bunny face on every person we pass. We could see which people on the street have criminal records. We could change the color of everyone’s skin to purple, or brown, or white. We could see who in the room shares our religious beliefs and who doesn’t. We could see how people voted and what their latest tweet was as they walk by. We could blur out the people we don’t want to see. The layers we choose to apply to the world will be as unique as our fingerprint. No one else will see the world as we see it.
If we continue to build technology that pushes us down a path of personalized isolation, we risk irrevocably undermining the foundation of what has allowed us to thrive as a species.
This kind of persistent digital mediation means that the bubble we live in on the web will become the bubble we inhabit in the world, and the buffer between reality and our growing online isolation will disappear, accelerating our retreat.
On a societal level, our ability to work in groups, debate ideas, compromise, and move forward collaboratively is one of the most important differentiators separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom and enabling us to accomplish our amazing social and technical feats. If we continue to build technology that pushes us down a path of personalized isolation, we risk irrevocably undermining the foundation of what has allowed us to thrive as a species.
Given the profitability of personalization, there is no reason to believe we won’t apply the same principles used on the web to AR and other emerging interfaces. In fact, as AR applications advance, most will leverage the same data layers we’ve been developing over the last few decades. The flawed, biased algorithms that currently drive so much of our online life will most likely be ported directly into this new interface, shading our entire view of reality.
An opportunity for change
This doesn’t have to be the case. Technology isn’t something that happens to us; it is something we choose to create. The first time around we were able to feign ignorance about the consequences of our actions. Today, that luxury is gone, but a new luxury has presented itself: actual experience and wisdom. We have seen the outcome of our choices, and we now have an opportunity to take a more considered path. AR is enough of a new paradigm that it gives us a chance for a reset.
This begins with rethinking the way we deliver value. The true value of AR comes from context. A digital overlay on physical reality needs to enhance the moment you are in. Otherwise, it’s just distracting. For example, if we simply take a Twitter feed and have it streaming in the corner of someone’s eye while they are walking around, we aren’t enhancing anything; in fact, we’re most likely making it harder for them to engage with reality. This may feel obvious, but we take this kind of cut-and-paste approach to design all the time when we port existing products to new interfaces. If, instead, we take our time and truly embrace the unique, contextual nature of AR, we have an opportunity to leverage elements like location, time of day, weather, etc., to deliver value in completely new ways. If we can take the time to explore new approaches, this shift in thinking could allow us to move away from algorithmic personalization as our go-to data filter and instead start to center shared experiences based on common context.
If you are providing the persistent overlay that defines a person’s entire view of reality, you carry an outsized influence over their life and their decisions.
But, while the way we deliver information and design the user interface for AR applications will be an important factor in determining the impact AR has on society, it doesn’t get at the root of our issues. If that is the depth of our conversation, then we are basically trying to save the Titanic by rearranging the deck chairs. AR represents a chance to go deeper and step into some #realtalk about ethics and the real issues with our broken culture of design and technology.
How does our level of responsibility change when an application drives everything a person sees? If you are providing the persistent overlay that defines a person’s entire view of reality, you carry an outsized influence over their life and their decisions. There is a deep level of responsibility here that goes beyond that of existing digital applications (which, I would argue, already carry a level of responsibility we are hesitant to accept). We can’t continue to operate unchecked while everyone just hopes for the best. Our days of pretending our decisions have no impact are over. We have to step up and embrace the weight of our responsibility and be willing to take on the due diligence required to manage it.
A huge piece of that due diligence involves proactively addressing our own personal biases. Biased, insulated decision-making driven by tech monocultures underlies much of today’s technology issues. In the world of design, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are objective, often hiding behind the human-centered design process as though it’s some magic shield against bias. In reality, our final products are covered with our biased fingerprints, and this is a problem few teams have the tools or skills to address.
Most teams lack diverse perspectives entirely. And even if they have them, the team can often lose the benefit of that diversity because of an unwillingness to have conversations that might be difficult or that might slow down the team’s ability to “ship.” This is a deep failure of communication often stemming from a lack of individual awareness and one that is rarely considered when we think about how to create more effective teams.
It is paramount that we focus not only on building diverse teams with broad representation, but that we all take on the individual work required to tag, process, and address our own blind spots. Diversity on its own is powerless. The power of diversity comes when a team is able to embrace it, and that cannot happen unless each team member actively works to understand the biases they bring to the table.
We need to create team cultures where open discussion and identification of bias, privilege, and blind spots is explicitly welcomed, proactively accepted, and frequently encouraged. This is just as important as giving feedback on designs (probably much more so), and with some practice and training, it can be done just as constructively. If our goal is to deliver real human value with the things we create, then this kind of personal growth work should be a top priority for corporate HR departments and the anchor of team-building programs. Will this cause initial discomfort? Hell yes. Will it take work to overcome it? Yep. Will it result in products that are more thoughtfully designed and more beneficial to the people who use them? Absolutely.
We are becoming increasingly intertwined with our technology. The growing depth of this connection adds new weight to each decision we make in the way we design and build the next generation of applications. AR is a new paradigm that gives us a chance to step back and consider the learnings we’ve gained over the last few decades. We can choose to maintain the status quo, or we can decide that now is the time to correct our course.
Thanks for reading! Join my free newsletter for more thoughts on design, technology, and society delivered straight to your inbox: https://designlikeyoumeanit.substack.com/