I've tried to write a lot of essays on the subject, but they keep getting too long as I work out details. So I'm not posting them. This time, I'm going to try to keep things shorter.
Why is augmented reality (AR) going to be as world-changing as the internet? What benefits does it offer? First, what the hell is it, really?
It'll be a long time before we wear goggles that alter how reality looks, if we ever do (it may actually be easier to replace our eyes or get a neural feed), but AR is useful long before then.
For example, there are new displays that can be transparent (or, at the worst, display video from a camera on the other side of the display). Imagine including GPS and orientation systems into the display, so that it knows exactly where it is facing. This system can't do any kind of visual analysis, but what it can do is reference a database full of things that are recorded in the world at specific points. Some of these things will be real (addresses), some will be fake (restaurant reviews), but they can all be displayed just by knowing where we are and where we're facing.
This should be enough to accomplish the vast majority of AR's real power. What's it accomplish?
As far as I can tell, the biggest benefit is deep asynchronous communities (DAC).
An example of a DAC is YouTube: people will post thousands of videos to YouTube on any given subject, and friends and total strangers will see it and respond. It's significantly "deeper" than asynchronous communities offered by forums or MySpace because it's easier to communicate on a complex and/or personal level: just fire up your camera and talk. It's impossible to overstate the effectiveness of full audiovisual communication in comparison to text.
However, YouTube is a feeble DAC compared to a group of teenagers messaging each other with texts and pictures. The teenagers have an advantage: their DAC is supported by the strong backbone of their synchronous community: they're friends that hang out, which means that they share common interests and bonds. Although the messages and pics are not very deep communications, they are building off a mountain of deep communications: the synchronous community of the teens.
Some more modern not-so-deep asynchronous communities (such as XKCD) have worked in the opposite direction, working to establish synchronous communities from their asynchronous ones. This has worked only to a small extent...
The point is that humans build communities. It's part of our instinct. Even if the "people" we're building the community out of are represented only by simple Times New Roman forum posts, we manage. We build absurdly deep communities out of things that require only the lightest community - there's not much reason behind the deep sense of community that allows Eve Online to stay Online.
AR is, I think, one of the ultimate methods to do this.
AR is limited by the fact that it's local to where you are (or are pretending to be). However, this limitation is potentially a strong congealing force because it allows us to easily get a synchronous meeting going. Chatting in person is a hundred times more powerful than chatting through AIM.
"Why do we need AR? We could just go out with our friends!"
Ah, but the network is crippled as it stands now.
You can probably picture in your head dozens of people that looked like they might be Your Sort of Folk... but you never talked to them. Certainly never became their friend.
You also probably remember a bunch of people you were friends with that you aren't really friends with now - either they moved away, or they just didn't much like hanging out, or any number of other details.
Let's imagine ourselves up a
How long do you think it will take before the college is wholly transformed into a thousand different environments? I bet within a week the college has a fantasy facade, a scifi facade, a goth facade, a cartoon facade, a "student life" facade... and that's not even counting the facades for makeshift games such as assassins.
The system can't interpret visual information, remember. All of these facades are constructed virtually, but in "real space". Someone measures out the parameters of all the buildings, and then people specify virtual additions. The software shrugs and pleasantly burps up the fact that there is a huge dragon on top of Kinnecut hall, and that the Ecclesiastical Studies Building has been spraypainted with rude (and animated) murals. All visible by holding up your viewplate and looking through it.
It's possible that the arnets will be private - Jimmy and Don might have their own personal data for their own personal net - but many of these nets will be pseudo-public. Imagine cycling through networks. The scifi folk spend their time on a space station, where every window looks out over the nearby nebula. For some reason the student government has imprinted a map of the world onto school property and is running some kind of weird economic sim based on who travels where... All of them sprinkled liberally with various comments, videos, items, and so forth, some generated automatically, some generated by the participants.
It's like an immersive YouTube, except that you can choose to live in their worlds rather than just watch them talk. These shared realities are more powerful than virtual realities because they are so much more invasive: you can be in (and be helped by!) an augmented reality while you're listening to a lecture or eating lunch. You can be face-to-face with other people from your reality, talking and interacting at full speed, not crippled by text-only or time lag or anything else.
Add in the fact that if someone walks by your screen, you see their name (in your arnet) and various commentary about them, this can make your community spontaneous but very, very deep.
"Is it really so important, though? It sounds a lot like just joining a club, but with added graphics!"
I think it's not just important, I think it changes the world. Putting aside the cool power to reshape reality to whatever you want, putting aside the way it can be used to build "paths" through reality, rewind and fast forward time, provide instructions on complex things in the real world, and give us bulletproof personal ratings... it allows us to live together in a world we create, rather than living vaguely near each other in a world of life's choosing.
It's hard to say what the advantages to many of the AR abilities are. Will being able to virtually rewind time ever be as critical as, say, email? Will being guided on specific physical paths ever be as important as having a cell phone?
I can make some guesses (yes and yes), but it's almost impossible to describe WHY in less than ten pages, and there's a lot of chaos between here and there. They certainly won't become important all that quickly: AR will be around for years before they become important.
But communities will start important and stay important, and it won't be long before access to our central community database is considered a sense as important as sight or hearing. It's certainly not going too far to assume that AR will radically reshape what it means to be part of a community.
What do you think?