Monthly Archives: March 2012

Augmented reality will objectify women

The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and my blog is normally very enthusiastic about its potential. Enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games while my wife is shopping, or enjoying artworks transposed onto walls in the high street are just a few of the benefits.

But I realized recently that it won’t all be wonderful. I’ve often joked that you could replace all the ugly people in the high street with more attractive ones. But I didn’t really consider the implications of that. And now I have, I think it will actually become a problem.

In spite of marketing hype and misrepresentation of basic location based services, AR is only here in very primitive form today, outside the lab anyway. But very soon, we will use visors and contact lenses to enable a fully 3D, hi-res overlay on the real world. So notionally, you can make everything in the world look how you want, but only to a point. You can transform a dull shop or office into an elaborate palace of spaceship. But even if you change what they look like, you still need to represent real physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or you may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows you to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.

When it comes to people, there will be some small battles. You may have a wide variety of avatars, and may have invested a great deal of time and money making or buying them. You may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. You may want to look younger or thinner or as a character you enjoy playing in a computer game. You may present a selection of options. The avatar they choose to overlay could be any one of the images you have on offer, that you spent so much time on. Maybe some people get to pick from some you offer, or are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile.

However, other people may choose not to see you avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is the first and most obvious battle in AR and it will probably be won by the viewer (there may be exceptions, and these may be imposed by regulations). The other person will decide how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.

You can spend all the time you want making your avatar or tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see Lady Gaga walking past instead of you, they will. You and your body become no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. You are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. If you worry about objectification of women, you will not like what AR will bring.

Firstly they may just take your actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it,  so it is still definitely you, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how you might look naked, body-fitting any images from a porn site. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. They could even use your actual face as input to image matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone can digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated software and image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin colour or make-up, and make you look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. And you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. You simply won’t know whether they are celebrating your inherent beauty with respect, flattering you and simply making you look even prettier, which you might not mind, or stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, which you probably will mind a lot.

Or they can treat you as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone, a zombie, favourite actress or supermodel. They won’t need your consent and again you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements but it won’t be you. In some ways this won’t be so bad. You are still reduced to an object but at least it isn’t you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on the high street, you were mostly just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into before. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when you stop being just a passing stranger and start to interact in some way that it starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but looking at someone else entirely, especially if the viewer is one of your friends or your partner. And if your partner is kissing or cuddling you but seeing someone else, that would be a strong breach of trust, but how would you know? This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.

It’s a fairly safe bet that the software to do some or all of this is already in development. Maybe some of it already exists in primitive forms but it will develop quickly once AR display technology is really with us. The visor hardware required is certainly on its way and will be here by christmas.

In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at you. Imagine how that would clash with rules that are supposed to be protection from sexual harassment  in the office, but how to police it?

The main casualty will be trust.  It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. You may dress as primly as you like, but if the viewer sees you in a slutty outfit, perhaps their behaviour and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. So we may see an increase in sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.

It applies equally to men of course. You could look at me and see a gorilla or a zombie or see me fake-naked. I won’t lose any sleep over that because I don’t really care all that much. Some men will care more than I will, some even less. I think the real victims will be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively.

We can still joke about a world where you use AR to replace all the ugly people with supermodels, but I think the reality may well not be quite so funny.


Are advertising and Apple expenses we can do without?

If you wage war with someone and he gets a bigger gun, you feel pressured to get one too. It’s the same in the war to take your money. If everyone else spends a fortune on advertising, you are likely to feel forced to do so too. But it costs, heavily, and those costs ultimately have to be recovered in higher prices.

When you click on an ad on a website, an advertising company somewhere typically gets about £0.50. That 50p plus has to be recovered when you buy the product, but many of the clicks are ineffective, and there are other expenses in the whole chain apart from the actual click fee (the seller’s own staff, banking costs, accountancy, management etc). Whether you even notice ads or have ever clicked on one, the money you hand over nevertheless subsidises a great many ads, and the ultimate price you pay is much greater than the price that would be needed without advertising.

Nothing new there, but advertising has become a significant and unavoidable extra cost along with taxes and banking fees (and parking charges if you buy in town). You don’t get a choice whether to pay extra to buy via an advertising route or get it cheaper by somehow buying direct. Add up all the web ads, junk email, text messages, paper junk mail, newspapers and magazines, TV and radio advertising, and the whole advertising mark-up is big.

Advertising doesn’t just increase costs. With the exception of some wonderfully entertaining ads, many involving meerkats, adverts waste our time too. Count up all the hours people waste fast forwarding over the add breaks or even sitting through them, and consider the significant personal stress directly resulting from the irritation they cause, that may have a small but finite impact on health. Add to that the extra demands on landfill from the paper junk mail, plus the wasted time opening and sorting the waste. The negative impact on our lives, the environment, and on  the overall economy is vast. Sure, the ad industry creates jobs, but jobs in advertising don’t generate wealth (though there are obviously cash flows between regions). Like banking and the public sector, advertising is a drain on resources. It syphons money from the productive economy and impoverishes us. 

On the other hand, advertising pays for a great deal of what we use on the web, watch on TV or read in newspapers. Some of that wouldn’t exist if the advertising went away, though some would survive via other business models. We’d still have to pay for the things we want to use somehow, so any notional extra fees and administrative inconvenience can reasonably be offset against advertising’s negative impacts.

But even with that offsetting, we really should challenge the cost:benefit ratio in advertising and see if we can find better ways of letting suppliers make potential customers aware of the merits of what they have on offer.

Advertising is only one strand of marketing of course. Marketers know that people want to learn about their new products when they are potentially interested. Context is key. If I have just eaten, I am not interested in marketing from nearby restaurants. If I haven’t, I might be. Using context makes direct marketing possible, especially knowing the location of the user and their tastes and preferences. I will gladly pull information from companies willing to sell me stuff I am interested in, when I want it. They won’t have to pay anyone. Pull marketing is potentially very low cost to both parties, providing the consumer with the info on suppliers’ offerings so they can make an informed decision on what to buy. If we moved entirely to that sort of model, we could greatly reduce the price of everything we buy while saving time and stress.

It is certainly possible to build such a system and make it work well. The technology exists and we’d all be far better off. The really huge problem is that we have bought into the smartphone model, buying iphones, pads or similar, and were taken in so well by beautiful designs and features that we didn’t look under the covers. What we didn’t consciously buy, but bought nonetheless, were devices that only give us access to things on condition that Apple or another big manufacturer gets a big slice of the price, via a variety of mechanisms. A smartphone is perfectly capable of providing exactly the platform we need to save lots of unnecessary spend, but Apple has used its power to extract its own slice of our spend not just at device purchase but throughout its lifetime. Not only has it not let us avoid the expense of advertising, it has added its own extras on top. It has made the situation even worse. Most other companies also use strategies that are designed to get into the most lucrative position in the value chain, expanding the price increase industry.

As I remember it in the beginning, the web was meant to get rid of intermediaries and save costs, making the economy more efficient. What has happened is that layer upon layer of new intermediaries have become adept at selling us products and purchasing systems that allow them to skim off extra slices of revenue for themselves. Anyone working in IT is very familiar with the many layered system architectures, and each layer is another opportunity for some company to take a slice of the revenue passing through. All add ultimately to the purchase price, and companies like Apple win several times because they control several of the architectural layers that their devices are used in. But we are suckers, and keep buying them. Because the extra costs are cleverly hidden or disguised or renamed, we don’t notice them until it’s too late.

I may sound critical of Apple, but all they are doing is to maximise profits for their shareholders, whilst giving customers products they can’t resist. There is no fault there. The same goes for Google or Facebook or any other intermediary. It is the model that we need to change, not companies, who will always do what they can to make the most money. That’s what companies are for.

I’ve written often about cloud nets and digital jewellery nets and the forces of censorship and surveillance and web-based politics and the consequential likely emergence of sponge networks. Check them out in my recent articles list. Freeing ourselves of parasitic companies and advertising is another potential pressure. It may go two ways. We could simply recreate exactly the same problems all over again, just swapping one set of intermediaries for another. Sadly, that is the most likely outcome. History teaches us best that we don’t often learn from history.

But, and this is a long shot, but one that would really help make the world better, we could make devices that people buy, and are then free. No charges for making apps for them, no push advertising, completely open, highly context aware, and high powered, yet completely free to own and use after purchase. Even the comms could be free. They would be capable of everything that you do now, and more. We could use them to talk direct to suppliers and do business with them without anyone else involved. It is even possible to design a free payments and banking system. We could avoid paying anyone except the device manufacturer, once, and the companies we want to do business with using the devices. And with all the time and money we would all save, none of us would mind paying a fair price for such a device. Many people paid via advertising would have to find alternative support models, but the economy would be better off, the rest of us individually would be better off, and the environment would be better off. It is hard to see a downside.

History tells us we will still pick the other system and pay more for a worse life.

Chips in everything, but at what cost?

Lots of press coverage today on the new ARM  Cortex MO+ chip, that will be about 1mm square and has a battery that lasts several years since it uses so little power. It is being hailed as the next big thing in the ‘chips in everything’ idea space.  Here’s a pic:


OK, here’s a better one 🙂

There is plenty of coverage of the new chip. Do a web search for popular press stuff, or the Freescale website press releases, but I like EW for this sort of thing:

Like many futurists, I’ve been yacking about chips in everything for 20 years or more, but now it is almost here, the media are going nuts regularly with all the smart light bulbs, smart fridges, and the consequent kitchen rage, and the generally smart environments we will inhabit. Some of this stuff will be in demand, some won’t. The automated home as been launched again and again since the 1950s and there still is little evidence that we want most of the things that are possible. Smart waste bins have been around 20 years but only the most fanatical gadget freaks have one. Ditto internet fridges that order replacement milk or taps you can turn on from the office, and coffee machines that download new recipes off the net. Yes you can, but do you want to? Probably not.

It is certainly possible to put a 1mm chip in lots of things and add some sort of useful or fun functionality, especially since the chips will start at around 20p each, and the price will soon tumble to almost nothing. IPv6 will enable enough address space, and we’ll have to switch to that soon anyway. This chip doesn’t do everything, but when partnered with sensors and storage and comms, you have a pretty useful activator, and activators will be the basis of the grown up cloud. The 1990s future is starting to come over the horizon at last. Maybe slightly ahead of my usual ’30 years to the far future’ deadline.

On the other hand, the downside is pretty big too. Privacy and security will be enormously difficult to preserve in that kind of world. It won’t be long before the whole package can be sub millimetre. You can drop a few 1mm activators through the vents of an office copier/printer, intercept all the associated data and pass it all to a cleaner with a scanner later on. You could glue them to banknotes, or hide them in free pens, or in junk mail that goes in your office bin. No one would notice them, but you could spy on the holders pretty closely. Useful for spying on terrorists and criminals, but also a potential invasion of all our privacy. You could sugar coat them, sprinkle them from planes and let ants take them into caves to spy on rebels. Or just stick them on mosquitoes and let them go. Lots of civil applications and lots of military ones too. The list is endless. But, goodbye privacy, and goodbye security. Once again, there is still no free lunch.

Next generation small computers

One of my posts two years ago suggested it would be a great time to bring back the Spectrum computer or something like it:

The new Raspberry Pi is pretty much exactly what I asked for (though I don’t think it came from my request) . For about £22, you get a computer. You plug in a keyboard and a TV and comms, then start programming. I am amazed it has been so long for someone to do it, but better late then never. Now a new generation of kids can learn how to program by messing about, instead of falling victim to the formal teaching that is provided by schools and university. I have always believed that learning how to hack programs together is the best way to understand what you are doing. You can learn formal methods later if need be. I don’t think hacking is the source of bad habits. Rather, it is more likely to show you the workings of the machine so you can exploit it better. I have seen too many taught programmers make good impressions of being mentally crippled after being forced to think in just one way, any fee-thinking and originality purged.

The Raspberry Pi isn’t the only tiny computer around though. FXI also have one, the size of a USB memory stick, and pretty impressive capability, albeit five times the price. It is easy to imagine how devices like this could really change how we work. I like to travel very light and haven’t carried a laptop for years – even the latest are still heavy and big and just aren’t worth the trouble. I won’t even use an iPAD because it is still obese, power-hungry, and altogether too primitive.Turning up at a conference with a memory stick containing your presentation has been fine as an alternative, but you are reliant on the conference laptop having the right setup. If you could bring a full PC memory stick and run everything from that, that would be better. At home it will be good to put media straight onto your TV without cluttering the room up with big boxes. A Slingbox has done that for years, and smart TVs now do it built-in, so it isn’t new, but this makes it a lot easier and cheaper to provide web and media on more conventional TVs.

On the go, you need some sort of visual display of course but soon we will have visor based head up displays that work with fingertip tracking or virtual  keyboards. Then these compact devices will come into their own. You’ll be fully connected and IT capable, but carrying hardly any weight.

Both of these new devices are small but capable, and most of the size they still have left is really interfacing to other devices. The processing guts is much smaller still. There is room to shrink further, and it is clear from these that the era of digital jewellery is almost with us. Imagine the enormous environmental benefits too, if we hardly need any resources to provide for all our IT needs.

It is the curse of futurology that you are never really happy with the stuff available today because you know what is round the corner. But when I can easily fit all my IT into my pocket as a memory stick and wear a lightweight visor as my interface, I’ll be pretty near content. Can’t be long now