The Coming Supremacy of AR

How augmented reality is far more than a phone on your face.

November 29, 2019 • 7 min read

An annoying thing about the future is that, at first, it sucks.

The original iPhone was, to many people, obviously great. Although even the most optimistic iPhone users of 2008 mostly underestimated the impact smartphones would eventually have on work, play, and society, the iPhone was still clearly a product that mattered. A product from the future.

But that was in 2008. If you were to go back in time a bit further, say to 2002, you might encounter the Handspring Treo. The Treo was not obviously great. To optimists, early smartphones were exciting and promising. But optimists get excited by dumb shit all the time. To most people, reasonable people, early smartphones seemed like a sci-fi novelty. And who can blame them? Statistically, it was a sci-fi novelty.

It is brutally difficult to distinguish the next big thing from the last big fad. For every smartphone, we have 100 netbooks. For every electric car, we have 100 jetpacks. Product ideas often seem like they could change everything, but once they become possible, they often turn out to just not be very compelling. So we learn to be skeptical.

At this point, it’s well known that Apple has big plans to develop an augmented reality headset. What’s got people talking recently is not that Apple is working on it, but that they’re reportedly so committed to the project that they’ve disclosed 1000 people on it. According to The Information, Apple leadership believes AR glasses could replace smartphones within 10 years.

Replace the smartphone? Who would want to replace their iPhone with a screen strapped to their face? John Gruber summed up the common sentiment crisply:

Why would people who don’t need glasses want to wear thick glasses all day? And they think it will replace phones in a decade? Do we really want our phone display in front of our eyes all day? I just don’t get it.

No matter how well they pitch it, the Apple AR headset is going to get this kind of reaction from most people. Just like current VR headsets, it is going to be kind of like a phone display in front of your eyes all day, with a bunch of compromises most people don’t really want to make, and it will kind of suck.

Based on Bloomberg’s claim that the initial headset will “focus on gaming, watching video and virtual meetings”, and talk of a dimming function to provide enough contrast for the display, it seems like the initial AR capabilities aren’t even going to be dramatically different than current-gen VR headsets: a 360 degree display on your face, integrated onto your view of the real world in a way that may only be marginally useful.

But Apple’s projection, it seems, is that their integration between virtual and reality will become useful. Incredibly useful. Apple may be optimistic in thinking that the timeline will be only 10 years long, but it seems clear to me that if physics really do make a good AR headset possible – glasses that can usefully and practically render information interleaved with our natural vision – it will change everything. A good AR headset would naturally displace the smartphone as the most useful device in our lives.

Truly good AR

Replacing the smartphone will require going way past strapping an iPhone display to your face. It involves moving far beyond showing video and pretending to be in meetings, and requires delivering on the promise that’s right in the name of the product: augmented reality. Enhancing what you see in the real world.

Now, if you’re cynical about technology – which after the last 5 years I would not blame you for being – you may imagine a future augmented by smart eyewear to look something like this.

Advertising, gamification, constant distractions and chaos, interruptions – basically a Black Mirror hellscape. And to be clear, in the event that high fidelity AR becomes possible, some company will attempt to make such a hellscape, filled with crapware and covering your gaze with nonsense for the lowest possible price.

I challenge you, though, to imagine not the worst that a future AR experience could be, but the best. Imagine instead an AR experience not designed by advertisers, but by Apple – or even better, Apple’s successors. A team obsessively focused on people, taking a distinctly human approach to designing how your glasses could augment what you see.

An augmented thought experiment

Consider what would be possible if your AR glasses could subtly, non-invasively, and pleasantly add any extra information to your field of vision in a tasteful way. If instead of showing messages and popups, they could augment your world in a way that made you happier or more effective. What would you ask them to show you?

A lot of peoples’ minds first go to wayfinding. For example, if you were getting around town, you might ask your glasses to:

  • Indicate the ideal route on the road while I drive
  • Highlight all parking spots that are currently available
  • Show the Lyft that’s coming to pick me up, through buildings
  • Ask, “Dude, where’s my car?”

That’s a start, but not a very creative leap from what smartphones do today. AR’s ability to enhance, coupled with the ability to work hands-free, could be really useful for getting things done. You might ask them to:

  • Highlight all the wooden studs in this wall
  • Show me how to disassemble this bike
  • Open my computer display here, at 34” wide
  • Highlight the location of this kind of screw, the one I’m looking at right now, when I get to Home Depot

Task-related instructions could certainly be helpful, but things get really interesting when you consider standing orders. Rather than just being a platform for notification popups, AR has the potential to provide calm, context-relevant reminders:

  • Whenever I’m at the grocery store, highlight any items that are on my grocery list
  • Whenever I open the fridge and something is expired, highlight it
  • If I haven’t picked up the mail in the last week, make the mailbox glow
  • Rather than popping up an interruption to take out the recycling at 8pm on Thursdays, just highlight the bin until I take it out

With gentle nudges, AR could help make you a more competent human being. Drawing your attention to things that need to be done is a start, but it could also draw your attention to things you want to improve, or things that are potentially unsafe:

  • Indicate whenever I pick up a packaged food item with more than 15% of my daily salt intake per serving
  • When I’m at a crosswalk, highlight any cars where the driver doesn’t seem to be paying attention
  • Show a little orange reminder light whenever I say “you guys”
  • If there’s a bear on this trail, in any direction, flag it with a giant red arrow and a flashing label that says “HOLY CRAP A BEAR”

Going beyond adding information, AR glasses could also transform information into a more useful or pleasant form:

  • Translate all Japanese into English
  • Mute all Avengers spoilers
  • Block any ads that animate, anywhere
  • Replace that awful painting Grandma loves with a photo of a cute sloth

Finally, just like our smartphones, AR glasses will get additional abilities over time that could slowly make us superhuman in ways that will feel perfectly natural:

  • Turn on heat vision, so I can find where the cold is leaking into my living room
  • Turn on night sight, so I can find my way down this path without turning on my flashlight
  • Put a rear view down in the corner of my vision, so I can live up to my reputation as a parent for having eyes in the back in my head
  • Zoom in on the sweet bald eagle up in that tree, so I can behold its majesty

It’s easy to think of AR as just adding a display in front of your face. That’s probably how it will start, and that may have some value in its own right. But if AR is going to replace the smartphone, displaying information in any way similar to a smartphone or smart watch of today would only be an evolutionary link in the chain. A stepping stone.

Where AR has the potential to change everything is the ability not to be “in your face”, but to blend into the world around you. The capability to seamlessly augment your vision is so powerful that if Apple – or anybody else – ever pulls it off, it will upend how we interact with technology as much or more as the smartphone ever did.

Many of the use cases I’ve outlined above may not be feasible for decades, but if seamless AR becomes practical, it will create entirely new uses, behaviours, and capabilities that my dumbass pre-AR mind can’t conceive of yet.

It’s almost enough to get a cynical technologist excited.

To be clear, I don’t know if AR really will replace the smartphone in 10 years. The future will get here on its own time. But it is, I’m pretty sure, just that: a matter of time.

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