Microsoft Hololens 2 Visor
The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and I am normally enthusiastic about its potential, looking forward to enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games, or enjoying visual and performance artworks transposed into my view of the high street while I shop.
But it won’t all be wonderful. While a few PR and marketing types may worry a little about people overlaying or modifying their hard-won logos and ads, a bigger issue will be some people choosing to overlay people in the high street with ones that are a different age or gender or race, or simply prettier. Identity politics will be fought on yet another frontier.
In spite of waves of marketing hype and misrepresentation, AR is really only here in primitive form outside the lab. Visors fall very far short of what we’d hoped for by now even a decade ago, even the Hololens 2 shown above. But soon AR visors and eventually active contact lenses will enable fully 3D hi-res overlays on the real world. Then, in principle at least, you can make things look how you want, with a few basic limits. You could certainly transform a dull shop, cheap hotel room or an office into an elaborate palace or make it look like a spaceship. But even if you change what things look like, you still have to represent nearby 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 battles. You may spend ages creating a wide variety of avatars, or may invest 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 to the AIs controlling the passer person’s view and the avatar they see overlaid could be any one of the images you have on offer. Perhaps some privileged people get to pick from a selection you offer, while others you wish to privilege less are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile. Maybe you’d have a particularly ugly or offensive one to present to those with opposing political views.
Except that you can’t assume you will be in control. In fact, you probably won’t.
Other people may choose not to see your avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is perhaps the first and most important battle in AR. Various parties would like to control it – visor manufacturers, O/S providers, UX designers, service providers, app creators, AI providers, governments, local councils, police and other emergency services, advertisers and of course individual users. Given market dynamics, most of these ultimately come down to user choice most of the time, albeit sometimes after paying for the privilege. So it probably won’t be you who gets to choose how others see you, via assorted paid intermediary services, apps and AI, it will be the other person deciding how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.
So you can spend all the time you want designing your avatar and tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see their favorite celebrity 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. Augmented reality will literally objectify women, reducing them to no more than a moving display space onto which their own selected images are overlaid. A few options become obvious.
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, using the latest AI to body-fit fantasy images from a porn database. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. You’ve probably already seen recent AI video fakery demos that can present any celebrity saying anything at all, almost indistinguishable from reality. That will soon be pretty routine tech for AR apps. They could even use your actual face as input to image-matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated AI-enabled image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin color or make-up or age or figure, 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 respectfully celebrating your inherent beauty, or flattering you by making you look even prettier, which you might not mind at all, or might object to strongly in the absence of explicit consent, or worse still, stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, with no consent or notification, 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, favorite 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 and even talk plausibly, saying whatever their AI thinks they might like, but it won’t be you. In some ways this might not be so bad. You’d still be reduced to an object but at least it wouldn’t be you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on a high street most of the time, you’re just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into, so being digitally transformed into a walking display board may worry you. 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 really starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but they are actually 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.
Most of the software to do most of this is already in development and much is already demonstrable. The rest will develop quickly once AR visors become commonplace.
In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you soon 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. Whole new levels of harassment will be enabled, much invisible. How can we police behaviors we can’t even detect? Will hardware manufacturers be forced to build in transparency and continuous experience recording
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 or modestly as you like, but if the viewer chooses to see you wearing a sexy outfit, perhaps their behavior and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. Increased digital objectification might lead to increase physical sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.
The tech applies equally to men of course. You could make a man look like a silverback gorilla or a zombie or fake-naked. Some men will care more than others, but the vast majority of real victims will undoubtedly be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively, more easily.