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Augment This!

16 Aug 2012 | Posted Under Internet
By Carl Weiss

Since the early days of online gaming, people talked about the day that virtual reality would be able to deliver the goods and produce an experience so incredibly realistic that you would be hard pressed to decipher where the game ended and the real world began.  There were even sci-fi movies that not only forecast what the world would be like after the advent of VR, but it also predicted the potential perils that could occur as a result of being jacked into the virtual world.  While neither the hardware nor the dangers of VR have thus far materialized, it is interesting to note that an offshoot of this paradigm has taken root.  What I am talking about is the man/machine interface known as “Augmented Reality.”

Through the App Darkly

For starters, let’s take a look at such technologies as social networks.  Most people wouldn’t think that a medium dedicated to making the world a more connected place would have anything other than the real world with which to converse. These people would be dead wrong.  It turns out that one of the fastest growing trends is the advent of non-human Twitter accounts.  That’s right, you can now read tweets from such things as a Boston Housecat, a pigeon who talks like a truck driver, an Olympian’s towel and even the San Francisco fog, just to name a few.  Why anyone would want to trade barbs with Rick Santorum’s sweater vest is besides the fact.  The reason that thousands or in some cases millions of people have been enticed into playing along with whimsical characters just goes to show you how far down the slippery slope that humanity has slid in its attempt to thwart boredom, loneliness and the daily grind.

Speaking of playing along, this brings us to the next online phenomenon, virtual worlds.  Second Life(SL) is one of the most prominent virtual worlds online today. Developed by Linden Lab and launched on June 23, 2003, this Internet based alternative universe currently boasts more than 800 thousand people who log in more than once per month, who collectively log some 105 million man hours per month.  Unlike other massive multiplayer games that have sprung up like weeds online, SL is not built by its developers (Linden Lab), but it is created by its members.  More importantly, once a member joins they have the ability to create their own avatar and can do such things as purchase virtual real estate, open virtual businesses and create a virtual world so all-encompassing that virtual therapists can be found on the site that charge $100 per online session.

The use of avatars is even becoming commonplace in business.  Take IBM for example. Back in January of 2007, CNET reported that, IBM envisions many businesses and nonprofits thriving in virtual worlds. Marketers can use the so-called metaverses to project a cool image of products, and retail outlets can use them to sell real-world goods. Lawyers, accountants and real estate agents could also set up shop in virtual worlds to meet with clients informally.
Virtual employee meetings and business teleconferencing could also benefit from the fact that virtual-world avatars can express emotion and gestures, adding life to otherwise remote events. In fact, IBM's McDavid said virtual worlds could ultimately be more of an affront to the airline business than teleconference services like WebEx. "A lot of this is a change of mindset," he said.

Even more astounding is the fact that IBM has been conducting virtual meetings worldwide with its employees via avatar for years.  If the article is any indication, they expect this trend to continue.  Consider this statement by McDavid,”
“A generation of kids reared in virtual worlds like Second Life or MTV's Laguna Beach are eventually bound for a work force that will need to cater to their experiences by creating virtual worlds for the corporate intranet.

Smartphone Wars

While losing yourself in an alternative realm may seem way out there for many people, allow me to point out the fact that more and more smart phone users seem to be in a world all their own without having to resort to an avatar.  You know who I am talking about.  These are the folks you see texting nonstop at the Monday morning meeting, or walking down the sidewalk talking to themselves.  Want to start a riot at the office tomorrow, ask the crowd at the coffee machine whether they would be willing to give up their smart phones for a day, or ask four coworkers whether Apple or Android is going to be the dominant form of communications in the next two years.  (Be prepared to run after posing either question.)

And smart phones are only the tip of the technological iceberg.  Have you heard of Google Glass?  This is the wearable computer that Google is developing that look like a pair of lensless spectacles.  If you think that your auto insurance is high now, what with every teenager in town texting while driving, wait until eyeglasses that automatically respond to your environment make their debut in 2013.  Look at the sky and these babies will supply you with the latest weather forecast.  Say the word and the glasses will start recording video. (This could be a good thing or a bad thing to try should you get pulled over for speeding.)

Of course, the main question to ask is whether wearing this kind of gadget while behind the wheel or even while crossing the street is a good thing or a bad thing.  That this kind of scenario is nearly inevitable was brought home last week in Paris when Dr. Steve Mann, the original inventor of digital eyeglasses, was assaulted in a Paris McDonalds when a customer attempted to rip the device off the doctor’s head.
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While in line at the restaurant, a McDonald's employee asked Mann about the glasses. Given that Mann and his family had "spent the day going to various museums and historical landmark sites guarded by military and police," he had a doctor's note regarding his computer vision glasses, which he showed to the employee.

"After reviewing the documentation, the purported McDonalds employee accepted me (and my family) as a customer, and left us to place our order," Mann wrote. Through the remainder of his story, Mann referred to that employee as "Possible Witness 1."  After placing his family's fast-food order with the cashier, or "Possible Witness 2," Mann sat near the restaurant entrance to people watch.

It was at that point that a man, who Mann dubbed Perpetrator 1, tried to take his glasses. "The eyeglass is permanently attached and does not come off my skull without special tools," he wrote.

Mann attempted to calm him down by showing him the letter from his doctor. Perpetrator 1 brought Mann with him to meet two other men (Perpetrators 2 and 3), one of whom was wearing a McDonald's employee shirt and carrying a broom and dustpan. All three men reviewed the doctor's note, then crumpled the paper and ripped it up.

"Perpetrator 1 pushed me out the door, onto the street," Mann wrote.

The irony of the situation came directly from Mann's glasses, which processes imagery using Augmediated Reality, Mann said, in order to help him see better. But when the internal computer is damaged, by, say, physical assault, it retains photos that it would otherwise erase, therefore capturing images of the situation.

There’s that term again.  Well, sort of.   Wikipedia defines the term as, Augmented reality (AR) is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer generated input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality where a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one.”

What the concept boils down to in practice is instead of merely using technology as an afterthought, in AR the man/machine interface is much more proactive in that much of what you see, hear, read and watch is filtered, metered, repackaged and broadcast via computer.   Where you currently send text and photos via smartphone whenever the mood strikes, in AR mode you would simply tell your wearable multimedia computer to snap photos or shoot video which you will then broadcast to a person, or a crowd (think Google Hangout) just by commanding your wearable computer to do so. 

While this kind of process doesn’t seem to be all that different from what many of us in the wired world currently do on a daily basis, the very idea of throngs of camera toting, online broadcasting throngs could well change the way in which individuals are perceived.  

·         If you think Rodney King made the headlines back in 1991, what do you think will happen when thousands or even millions of people equipped with wearable video technology will do to the world of network news? 

·         Will state governments enact laws that make AR behind the wheel a punishable offense?

·         Will airline passengers be forbidden from bringing their Google Glasses onto commercial airliners?

·         Will the authorities be able to issue a court order that allows them to review your video feed shot via wearable computer that clearly shows you drinking and then driving?

·         Will a divorce attorney be able to download compel a judge to allow a spouse’s Google Glass data to be held against him or her in court?

While the possibilities seem nearly endless, once AR becomes a reality that is embraced by the public, will this technology further erode the real world connections that make relationships possible.  Or, will we simply live, work and connect in a virtual world via avatar from the comfort of our own home?  Either way, it sure beats paying $3.50 per gallon at the pump.

Carl Weiss will discuss this topic yet further in his weekly Working the Web to Winradio show which airs every Tuesday at 4pm Eastern on Blog Talk Radio.  He is also president of W Squared Media Group and owner of Jacksonville Video Production.

Wearable Tech Pioneer Assaulted at Paris McDonalds by Stephanie Mlot (,2817,2407258,00.asp)
Meet Me in My Avatar’s Office by Stephanie Olsen (

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