The history of computers is one of increasing intimacy. At first users rented time on mainframe machines they did not own. Next came the “personal computer”. Although PCs were confined to desks, ordinary people could afford to buy them, and filled them with all manner of personal information. These days smartphones go everywhere in their owners’ pockets, serving as everything from a diary to a camera to a voice-activated personal assistant.
The next step, according to many technologists, is to move the computer from the pocket to the body itself. The idea is to build a pair of “smart glasses” that do everything a smartphone can, and more. A technology called “augmented reality” (AR) would paint computerised information directly on top of the wearers’ view of the world. Early versions of the technology already exist. If it can be made to work as its advocates hope, AR could bring about a new and even more intimate way to interact with machines. In effect, it would turn reality itself into a gigantic computer screen.
For the time being, the most popular AR apps are still found on smartphones. Pokémon Go, a smartphone game that briefly entranced people in 2016, used a primitive form of the tech- nology. Another popular application is on Snapchat, a messaging app whose parent firm is gearing up for an IPO: when teenagers overlay rabbit ears onto the faces of friends and family, they are using AR.
But the technology is advancing rapidly. Several companies already make fairly simple glasses that can project flat images for their wearers. They are increasingly popular with warehousing and manufacturing firms, who can use them to issue instructions to employees while leaving their hands free. Meanwhile, firms such as Magic Leap, Meta and Microsoft, are building much more capable headsets that can sense their surroundings and react to them, projecting convincing, three-dimensional illusions onto the world. Microsoft is already running trials of its HoloLens headset in medical schools (giving students virtual cadavers to dissect) and architectural practices (where several designers can work together on a digital representation of a building).
Designing a nifty piece of technology, though, is not the same as ushering in a revolution. Social factors often govern the path to mass adoption, and for AR, two problems stand out. One is aesthetic. The HoloLens (@HoloLens) is an impressive machine, but few would mistake it for a fashion item. Its alien appearance makes its wearers look more creepy than cool. One reason the iPhone was so successful was that it was a beautiful piece of design. Its metal finish and high-quality components, allied with a big advertising push from Apple, all helped establish it as a desirable consumer bauble.
The other big problem surrounds consent. The history of one much-hyped set of smart glasses should give the industry pause. In 2013 Google launched its “Glass” headsets to a chosen segment of the public. As well as those who thought the product looked silly, plenty found the glasses sinister, worrying that their users were covertly filming everyone they came into contact with. “Glassholes” became social pariahs. Two years later, Google withdrew Glass from sale.
Both of these problems are solvable. Computers only ever get smaller. Costs shrink relentlessly, too. It may well be possible one day to build a capable and affordable AR computer that looks like a pair of fashionable glasses. Social etiquette also evolves. The Snapchat generation may not be troubled by the idea of being perpetually on camera.
In the meantime, AR’s first inroads will probably come in the world of work, where bosses can order their employees to use headsets with little concern for the finer social niceties, or for how much of a berk they make people look. AR seems likely, in other words, to follow the same path to popularity as smartphones. The first mobile phones were clunky, brick-sized devices, mostly used by self-important bankers and a frequent target of mockery. You would not wear a HoloLens on a night out. Twenty years from now, though, your children may well be showing off a distant descendant.
The Economist – Europe, 4 February 2017