The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds

Excerpted from an amazing essay: The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds by Jamais Cascio.

Augmented Reality
"Augmented reality" is a mouthful term for what is gradually becoming a familiar experience: the annotation and observation of the world around us through the use of information and communication technologies. "Location-based" services such as denCity or Crunkies (or, as Mikki discussed earlier today, the "Dodgeball" service) are simple forms of augmented reality, as they provide points of connection between information networks and physical space. With the right kinds of mediating tools, we can leave notes to each other or access particular bits of information appropriate to one's current location. Who's near me? What's good here? What might I easily miss? These are the kinds of questions that location-based tools attempt to answer. "Remote data" services such as Google Earth or SeaLabs are simple forms of augmented reality as well, as they provide technology-enabled extensions of our natural senses.

As augmented reality evolves, such information-by-request will be matched by constant ambient information, allowing us to keep track of bits of information we individually find useful, but not demanding constant attention. The intent isn't to cut people off from their immediate physical experience, but to allow people to maintain non-physical contact with distant experiences -- the health of a sick relative, or weather forecasts, or traffic levels on one's blog. Although superficially this may appear to add to information overload, if done properly, it could actually be a moderating tool: rather than actively seek out bits of information that may not be useful at that particular moment (and correspondingly worry about missing something), we can allow the tools to monitor that information for us, only drawing our attention to changes that actually warrant our attention -- but still keeping the info at easy reach when we decide we want to check.

Current tools for augmented reality are fairly cumbersome, as most rely on mobile phones, which spend most of their time in our pockets unless they require our attention. This is hardly optimal for situations where we need ambient communication -- changes on the periphery of our senses, noticeable but easily ignored if need be. The utility of augmented reality is such that we will likely see substantial improvements in the physical interfaces in the near future.

Augmented reality requires a robust network of accessible information sources, as the system described would combine the ability to observe remote phenomena with the ability to provide asynchronous location-based information (that is, information transfer at a particular spot that doesn't require all parties to be there at the same time). These information sources could include both "blogjects" -- physical objects that provide rich networked information about themselves and their environments -- and participatory media, people carrying around cameras or recording devices that they allow the rest of the world to experience.

Virtual Worlds
Interestingly, some "augmented reality" features are already present in virtual worlds.

Nearly all virtual world environments, from games like World of Warcraft to social networks like Second Life, provide an interface that puts important but not always demanding-of-attention information along the screen's periphery, similar to what one might experience with real-world augmented reality gear in a few years. The complexity of the interface generally reflects current activities; for example, a WoW player on a Molten Core raid may have on the screen more information about the health of teammates and more links to tools or abilities than she would during small-group play.

Virtual worlds provide an artificial manifestation of physical proximity for non-local participants. It doesn't matter if the people on the aforementioned Molten Core raid are actually located in San Francisco, US, Toronto, Canada, and Yorkshire, UK, they can interact with each other as if they were all in the same (virtual) location. To the degree that economic and social behavior has an information component, they can engage in relationships and commerce; as tools for fabricating in the real world designs from virtual space become available, these interactions can take on a more tangible aspect, too.

If augmented reality provides us with virtualized information about real-world spaces, virtual worlds provide us with immersive non-physical experiences in imagined spaces. But as the interface description above suggests, there's the potential for overlap: picture an augmented reality tool that informs the user of interesting events from fiction that took place at given locations. Projects such as ARQuake take the overlap of augmented reality and virtual worlds even further, overlaying the Quake game environment -- and opponents -- on top of physical reality.

But the intersection of virtual environments and augmented reality will get more interesting when the amount of AR data available is sufficient to build a relatively realistic model of the physical world that can be examined and navigated as if it were a virtual environment.

We've seen mapping applications that do something similar, offering 3D navigable spaces that appear more-or-less identical to real world locations. That's just the beginning, though, as these current tools are static and lifeless. A fuller combination of virtual world and augmented reality would include the location-based information for geographic points as well as the information streams from blogjects and individuals who have opened their personal recording devices to outside observation. With enough participation and information density, one could build what would amount to a SimCity version of the real world, supported by extensive real-world data on behavior and locations.