Augmented Reality and the New Digital Divide
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
When I shot the picture of this little guy lounging in his highchair watching cartoons, I thought it was adorable. And admittedly, I still do. But simultaneously it terrifies me, because it foreshadows a new type of digital divide that will be created by mobile devices and the introduction of augmented reality.
The exponential growth of the Internet in the 90s led to enormous debate about an impending digital divide caused by disparities in Web access between the socioeconomic strata. And today an entire generation is growing up that won’t know what it is like not to have multimedia entertainment and an endless sea of data available virtually anywhere, anytime. However, the new digital divide to which I’m referring won’t be socioeconomic or generational, but rather between people in the same room or the same conversation.
Augmented reality means the lines between digital media and reality will become increasingly blurred. The practical applications for marketing are abundant. But the societal implications of the new digital divide augmented reality may create are far greater.
In the relatively near future, an overlay of data and other visuals are likely to complement our everyday rituals. We will experience separate realities riding on the subway, sitting in the classroom, or having coffee with friends. Yes, people already do this with personal media devices. But being walled off behind earbuds zoning out to a favorite tune or sneaking a peak at your email under the restaurant table pale in comparison to the sci-fi-like augmented reality of the not-to-distant future.
Telephone, radio, television, and the Internet all sparked widespread debate about the societal impact of new communications technologies. In contrast, the impacts of the convergence of these media on wireless devices and the emerging augmented reality applications they enable have received relatively little attention.
Imagine a world of ubiquitous point of purchase or marketing invisible to everyone else but the user; eyeglasses that transport us to a “mixed reality” for entertainment or for battle; augmented reality sightseeing, business cards, toys, movie promotions ...
Augmented reality has the potential to bring people together and form new types of communities that bridge the gap between online social media and real-world interaction. But it has equal potential to further distance us from one another, creating virtual walls between strangers, friends and family alike.
If you thought always-on email was distracting, just wait until you’re having a conversation with someone separated by a overlay of digital stimuli transmitted through eyeglasses, contacts or even a biometric implant. Dialogue may become scarce. And an eerie, hard-to-imagine virtual trialogue between participants in the conversation and an augmented reality determined by an advertiser, Google or other branded overlord may be just around the corner.
I’m not a technophobe. And I’m the first to admit it will take time for augmented reality technologies to reach the critical mass required to make my predictions a reality. But we should start thinking about the ways in which augmented reality’s digital fabric could impact the cultural fabric. Like other technologies, we are unlikely to be able to stop or control it. However, the sooner we start debating its potential implications - and identifying practical applications and lucrative new business models - the better.