It says something about the world we live in that, right now, perfectly sober people are wandering the streets in search of bright blue turtles and flying pigs. In the good old days they called this “taking acid and having a good night”. These days the crazy creatures are visible only through smartphones, meaning, ironically, the more drugs you take the less likely you are to see them.
This week the internet has been swamped with what-the-hell-is-this style stories attempting to explain Pokemon Go, a phone-enabled augmented reality game currently taking the tech-savvy time-to-spare world by storm. Crikey had a crack a couple of days ago.
Do you need to understand what this thing actually is? No. Will your life be better if your head is across it? Almost certainly not. Are many people using it? Oh yeah. The app has more active users than Tinder, and is soon to overtake Twitter.
You’re probably more than happy to let the 4G-powered yoof of today be the ones who run around hunting for digitally rendered rabbits. Rest assured, however, that it’s just a matter of time until this sort of technology — almost certainly a more advanced form of it — comes to you. The writing is on the wall, even if you have to peer through advanced fibre optic thing-a-me-bobs to see it.
This year is shaping up to be an interesting, perhaps seminal one: a kind of technology crossroads, with major platforms long in the collective imagination beginning to find widespread use. We’re currently seeing the advent of two huge, by definition reality-realigning movements: virtual reality and augmented reality, known by the umbrella definition as “mixed reality.”
A spate of recently and soon-to-be released VR headsets are crowding the virtual reality market. They offer everything from gimmicky games and experiences — T-Rexes coming around the corner and Star Wars-style cockpits, that sort of thing — to weird reinventions of existing platforms such as virtual social media networks. All the big players are investing in VR; Facebook alone has over 400 people in their virtual reality department.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, has been a quieter achiever, relying on additions to and distortions of reality rather than top-to-bottom reinvention of it. People laughed at Google Glass, the search giant’s failed piece of augmented reality eyewear. The basic concept behind it, however — that people views what’s in front of them through a filtered, digitally altered prism, integrating reality and artifice — is here to stay.
At this point in time the most common way to do enable this is through something everybody carries around anyway: their phones. Other products that integrate physical elements such as the Anki Overdrive, essentially a traditional slot car kids’ toy mixed with a video game.
More exciting technology is in the works, dependent on users putting down the devices in their pockets and placing filters in front of their eyeballs. Microsoft HoloLens — i.e. goggles that enable users to see high-definition holograms “in your world” — are currently shipping (not cheap, though: they’ll set you back $3000 a pop).
While some electronics companies toil away at developing better monitors for our homes and offices — displays that are sleeker, thinner, brighter, etc — others are playing a longer game. An ultra-secretive US startup called Magic Leap is working to replace the very concept of physical screens in the first place. So far investors (Google was one of the first) have financed it to the tune of US$1.4 billion.
Learning from Google’s failures, Magic Leap are avoiding words such as “lens” and “glasses.” Nevertheless, a glasses-esque device is put in front of users’ eyes, projecting lifelike-looking things into their sight.
Employees at Magic Leap’s Florida headquarters wear them throughout the day. The building includes digital people who roam around the office. They are made brighter so that they can be distinguished from actual humans, a creepy sign of things to come.
What we’re heading towards is a world — and it’s not that far away — where our eyes will be incapable of distinguishing between artifice and the things that are actually in front of us. It won’t just be a gimmick, like catching furry things on your phone. It’ll be about checking your emails; doing your word processing; going about day-to-day life.
Using technology like Magic Leap or HoloLens, you will be able to fill your office or lounge room with as many screens as you like. For a vision of the future of the working place, watch this video of an augmented reality desk.
Get used to the idea that your task list or emails will follow you around. Maybe your deceased dog can be re-rendered and will never leave your side again. The technology, of course, will be applied to many areas: in fields such as medicine, education and tourism the possibilities are practically endless.
So too, of course, for entertainment. For a glimpse of the sort of spectacle in store for us in the not-too-distant future, watch the first nine seconds of this video from Magic Leap, which shows a crowd of people at a basketball court react to a whale that rises out of the floor and leaps in front of them.
A brave new world indeed. No doubt staff at Magic Leap are abreast of the Pokemon Go phenomenon and right now are saying to each other, “man, they ain’t seen nothing yet”.