The Desert Of The Real

What is Augmented Reality? When Morpheus uttered the immortal line “welcome to the desert of the real” in 1999’s smash hit movie ‘The Matrix’, few viewers realized that he was, in fact, quoting French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s book ‘Simulacra & Simulation’ was a big influence on the film’s overall themes. Fewer still realized that, just over a decade later, reality itself was about to become a major commodity.

Of course, Baudrillard was referring to the concept of ‘hyperreality’ (a postmodern philosophical concept that pertains to a simulated or implied reality as opposed to an objective, or conclusive, state of existence). However, with the advent of such futuristic technology as Google Glasses, as well as the myriad apps currently being downloaded to smart phones across the world, it really does seem as if reality itself is about to receive an overhaul. If not a desert, the ‘real’ of 2012 actually seems closer to becoming an amusement park.

So, What is Augmented Reality? Far from the pre-millennial nightmare vision of Human beings as organic battery slaves (as espoused in the aforementioned Matrix franchise), the forthcoming decade would appear to be one of Human beings enriching their lives via a series of benign, highly useful technological innovations. Apps that can produce a price list and a menu for a local restaurant (via the simple act of pointing your phone or device in the eatery’s direction), or map out the night sky in real time, are not science fiction, but everyday reality for users of smart phones and tablet PCs.

Augmented Reality, as such technology is known (heretofore abbreviated as ‘AR’), is nothing new, at least in a rudimentary form. During the Gulf war, jet fighters sliced through the sound barrier before using interactive ‘AR’ screens in their dogfights with enemy planes. On television, major networks have shown sports analysis to their home audience as a series of swift, modernist arrows permeating the action in real time. In certain circles, there are even AR programs being used to train a new generation of surgeons, firefighters and even learner drivers.

But it is the area of consumer technology where most breakthroughs occur. Had it not been for the ubiquity of the home computer and its professional office counterpart, its possible that computers would still be taking the forms of the room full of blinking lights, technical readouts and heavy outer casing that once typified information technology. With AR products like maddeningly addictive games, genuinely useful apps and throwaway, disposable distractions, we can be assured of greater interest in AR over the next couple of decades. After that, who knows where it could all lead?

The advent of laptops and, more latterly, tablet PCs (both adaptations of computer scientist Alan Kay’s near-mythic 1968 ‘Dynabook’ concept), have made computers truly portable for the first time and, in so doing, have grafted a lasting impression on the landscape of our culture. Whether this impression is an unsightly visual scar or a divine beauty spot is entirely in the eye of the beholder. However, approving or not, that eye is likely to be seeing things in a very different ten years from now.