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.