They say that knowledge is just a click away, but what if it was easier than that? What if it was merely a glance away instead?

Imagine not even having to even lift a finger to soak up the information all around us.

This is precisely the goal of augmented reality (AR).

At its core, AR is the simple act of laying digital images or information over the real world. It first came about in the late 60s, when Ivan Sutherland laid a geometric grid over a user’s view of a room with the help of a head-mounted display.

The headset was a much clunkier version than the sleek eye-goggles we see today, but it did the job. Since then, technologists have beavered away to make digital overlays more realistic than ever before.

Let me take you back to 2016 for a moment.

Remember those hazy summer days spent walking around, phone pushed out in front of you, searching for your next catch?

The summer of 2016 was a huge milestone for AR because a simple app called Pokemon Go encouraged millions of people all over the world to get out of their houses and explore their surroundings.

Using AR, a digital reality was placed over the top of the real world so players could interact with familiar surroundings in a new and exciting way. It also helped that there was a competitive element to it to see who could “catch ‘em all”.

But while the idea of using AR in gaming might seem trivial (does it really add anything to anyone’s lives?), it’s being used in ways that are actually making a difference.

For starters, it’s changing the landscape of advertising.

The world of advertising has hit some growing pains in recent years since consumers have become more immune to being blasted with the “sell, sell, sell” spiel.

Today, people want a more immersive experience, and AR is bringing that to the party.

Take Ikea’s virtual furniture catalog, for example, which allows customers to see what a piece of furniture would really look like in their home. Or take the Lacoste app that lets consumers try trainers on via their mobile phone.

But while these apps and tools let consumers bridge the gap between reality and fantasy, are they not still biased in some way? Yes, adding digital creations to the real world so consumers can get a better idea of what their shoes or their furniture will look like is a huge step forward for the world of technology.

But, when reality meets fantasy, is it ever impartial? 

This ties in with the new emergence of what techies are calling “enabled landscapes”, a phenomenon that describes using personal computing “to amplify the physical experience of simultaneously arriving at and travelling through the landscape via seamless computer-generated sensory inputs”.

This could be anything from AR-style digital overlays, to videos or extra sound information.

While merging real-life with data and information is exciting, it begs the questions of why and who: 

  • Why are we choosing to essentially “replace” reality with a futuristic version of itself? Is reality alone not enough?
  • Who is making the decisions about what information is overlaid? Who decides what’s important enough to cut with reality?

Games like Pokemon Go obviously don’t drive such deep questions like these. The app was merely a fun distraction from reality, but is that what enabled landscapes are getting at? Is their main goal to take people away from their everyday lives?

And, perhaps the most important question is, why isn’t reality enough?

Enabled landscapes are essentially constructed realities which, if you really think about it, give way to the idea that “unconstructed” realities (a.k.a. the real world that we’re living in every single day) could be better.

And, while there’s no doubt it could be better – I can think of a few things off the top of my head that could definitely be improved – who are we to decide that? When did we decide that this world isn’t good enough so let’s make others instead?

The Future of Creating “New Worlds”

So what can we expect in five, ten, or even fifty years from now?

If the advancements of AR carry on like they have been, people might soon be able to choose tailored and personalized streams of digital data at different moments throughout the day and at different locations.

While I might be standing outside Wendy’s seeing stats from the past fifty years about how many burgers have been ordered, someone else might be standing outside Wendy’s seeing something else entirely.

This creates a juxtaposition of life.

Isn’t the whole point of living to interact with our surroundings? Will the emergence of personalized “landscapes” using AR mean that we are no longer living on this planet together but are, in fact, living millions and millions of separate existences?

This is one train of thought, but there’s another more collaborative thought pattern unfolding around AR and enabled landscapes.

In this theory, the world becomes a shared spatial screen that allows everyone to engage and collaborate together in the same space. While this might not work on a larger, worldwide scale, it has the potential to be incredibly handy for things like teaming up at work and problem solving.

But, in order to do this, we need a real-time three-dimensional spatial map of the world. Basically a copy of everything we can see so that we can easily organize information over the top of it.

Sounds pretty sci-fi, right?

It’s actually not as far away as you might think. In fact, some people have referred to this as the AR cloud, and it’s thought that it could be the most important software infrastructure in computing.

So, just like Google indexes every single webpage on the planet, the AR cloud acts as a kind of index of the world. Imagine that.

We all know that anything could happen in the future when it comes to high-tech advancements like AR. But will this be taking it too far? Do we really need more digital landscapes that have the potential to take us further and further away from reality?

Or perhaps we should be asking a different question: why are we so eager to get away from real-life?