Augmented Reality’s Path From Science Fiction to Future Fact

There can be a very thin line between fantasy and science. Fantasy drives science. Set aside Geordi’s visor and today’s augmented reality glasses for a moment. Instead, look at some original Star Trek episodes to see handheld, long-range wireless communication devices and voice-input and omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent computing half a century before these nonexistent technologies became things we take for granted.

Sometimes fiction is littered with outright hints about the future. You did see a version of the iPad, didn’t you, in Pixar’s The Incredibles, released while Apple was secretly working on the device, and both companies were controlled by Steve Jobs?

But for every iPad hidden in plain sight, there are elusive dreams we can’t quit, like personal jet packs. Our pipe dreams in personal flight are so rich, we’re even susceptible to outright albeit gifted fraud.

The frauds and the “Aha!”s have something very important in common: They play to emotional, even primal, desires. Once exposed to new concepts for future technologies, they quickly become things we not only want, but we anticipate exactly how we’d use them, and how often.

So where does Google Glass fit in on this spectrum of possibilities? There was a predictable range of reactions when Google pulled the veil off its RD baby on Apr. 4. I’d put them into two broad categories: people who embrace the beautifully improbable, and party poopers.

Maybe that’s too harsh. But there is a bit of head/heart divide here.

Testing the Proof-of-Concept

My Wired colleague Roberto Baldwin had no trouble finding skeptics who have earned the right to be pessimistic about whether we are going to see stylish specs that will look great even when not worn by attractive Google models.

“The small screen seen in the photos cannot give the experience the video is showing,” said  Pranav Mistry, an MIT Media Lab researcher and one of the inventors of the SixthSense wearable computing system.

Blair MacIntyre, director of the Augmented Environments Lab at Georgia Tech, agreed, and got to the heart of the matter: “Is it augmented reality, or is it location-based notifications? It’s going to generate ideas in people and expectations that just might not match.”

And then there is the handful of glasses with integrated displays that are already available. What they have in common with each other is that they do pretty much one thing a little better than otherwise possible. Heads-up display is a real convenience, but it’s just a more efficient way to get a stream of information. It doesn’t change the game. That’s what Google Glass aspires to do.

Glass is akin to a concept car, but not like those commercially ludicrous models automakers show off annually just to show how impossibly blue the sky can be. Glass would be a new prism through which we would filter every aspect of our lives — just as the smartphone went from zero to Always On.

Old Genies in New Bottles

Engineering question marks around Glass notwithstanding, some of the skepticism toward it is surely because it leverages a way of living that we are only starting to experience: the morphing of our personal devices from information tools and communications devices into full-fledged personal assistants.

This started in earnest with Siri, introduced with the iPhone 4S. It doesn’t work perfectly — or, at times, even well. And, yeah, sequences in those TV ads (where the people are faceless and the iPhone is always center screen) are souped up.

But Siri is getting us used to a new concept. A voice interface isn’t about dictating a text, or pure command and control (which Siri doesn’t do), but about getting anything you need at any time, literally for the asking.

“Personal assistant” might be too limiting a description for this new relationship. Stuff like this gives everyone the prospect of having a full-time virtual wingman.

The packaging doesn’t matter, as long as it gets smaller and easier to use. The original iPod was a monstrosity compared to today’s touch and nano, and Apple even has bigger (make that, smaller) aspirations: It’s obtained a patent for an earpiece with built-in iPod functionality.

The music stays the same, from heavy brick to tiny flash reduced to a component of a wearable device. But the DNA is passed on to a future generation.

In other words: better service, not better smartphones.

A couple of years ago, I playfully suggested that the tablet might spell the end of the smartphone. Today, I doubt we are anywhere near the end of the smartphone era that Google playfully suggests that Glass will usher in. Still, like the best fantasies of science fiction, this is one of those ideas that is just crazy enough to become true, maybe just because we’ll will it into existence now.

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