The leap year brings us one rare and wonderfully strange day. A date that is essentially an augmentation, if you will allow a term usually reserved for mammoplasty to be applied to the calendar. It's not hard to take pleasure in extra time added to the otherwise ho-hum realities of February. When I noticed the last day of the month had passed and I still hadn't sent out my rent check, the additional day made it okay. After looking back at the month's workout log and wishing I could've squeezed in one more run, I actually had the opportunity to do it. Thanks to the leap year, this week's Wednesday felt like a bonus. Today, reality was augmented in a way that normally doesn't happen.
If only this useful increase in time could be applied to other realms of reality, like physical space, knowledge, or perception. Extra information added to everyday experience could make things just as easy as February 29th, right? Whether we realize it or not, augmented reality (AR) already exists, and odds are we've experienced AR some time very recently. Even if our reality is only minimally augmented at present, trends suggest that our dependence on AR will most likely grow in the coming months.
Augmented reality can be defined as a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are enhanced by computer-generated sensory input. For example, the bright yellow line that moves with the first down marker on a televised NFL game and the scrolling fantasy stats at the bottom of the screen are a form of AR. The nifty rearview cameras and beeping noises that assist drivers of new luxury cars when backing up are an augmentation of reality. Or for many people, AR constitutes the incredibly practical smartphone apps that can guide them by foot, by automobile or by public transit to the tastiest frozen yogurt place in town. All of these enhancements of reality are so convenient and kind to our precious little brain cells that of course we will want more AR in the future.
Or do we?
Last week, rumors flew around the internet about a forthcoming release of the ultimate augmented reality device, Google Goggles. While the company has made no official announcements about the top secret project, insiders suggest that Google is creating a pair of glasses that will put all the best augmented reality apps of your smartphone right in front of your eyes. If the reports about Google Goggles are true, these revolutionary AR fashion accessories could be released within the year.
Google Goggles would reportedly feature small cameras on the frames and displays inside the lenses that would capture and display digital information about the world as it is seen by the user. Think tiny descriptions of buildings and monuments, social media connected to facial recognition technology, language translators, barcode scanners and, of course, location-based advertisements. Reality augmented by all the world's information in our glasses could radically change how the human mind approaches the world. So where is the evidence that this technology exists? Look no further than the Google smartphone app that can already search the internet through the phone's camera.
Before we let our inner sci-fi nerds rejoice, consider the inherent flaws with having reality tailored to our specific needs all the time. If a newly-arrived resident always uses a GPS to drive around his new town, will he ever really learn the important details about the streets and highways that lead to his house? If a woman chooses restaurants based only on the ratings system of a smartphone app, does it impair the diner's ability to make independent, objective assessments about her own unique, personal tastes? If an art enthusiast visits a museum in a foreign country and a handheld device speaks to him in his native tongue about the paintings and sculptures at the push of a few buttons, can he truly appreciate the visual experience of the art?
Even if we still want to commit ourselves and our posterity the wonders of AR goggles, we should acknowledge that we may lose a part of ourselves in the process. When the electricity goes out, the batteries die, and the cell towers stop working, will we be able to cope? There are little-used, but supremely important survival functions that we may one day need in a pinch. The ability to stay calm when faced with a failure in technology is a challenge now, but imagine the emotional and psychological consequences of an outage of augmented reality. It is already hard to maintain face-to-face, technology-free human relationships now, how difficult will it be to truly know people in the future if a computer can't deliver their contact information on demand. And for Google's sake, how will we entertain ourselves in such a world?
I like to think that being a digital pioneer and an early adopter of the latest, life-changing gadgets is a net positive in a world where success is so wrapped up in having 21st century skills. But we may have crossed the point of no return. Has something so fundamentally changed in ourselves that we think that unaugmented, plain old reality is suddenly not good enough?
Don't get me wrong, I will be a proud owner of Google Goggles by the product's second generation. I just hope I'll take them off long enough to wonder if progress all in the name of digital manifest destiny is worth the price of irrevocably changing a reality that is already pretty amazing as it is.
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