Originally published in The Guardian
We can conjure objects into our real world as if by magic with AR, and with Pikachu and friends earning up to $10m per day, R&D departments are searching for the next phase.
While Dorothy, blue-skirted and pigtailed, clutching a wicker basket and a bewildered dog under her arm, surveys the weird flowers and pygmy huts around her, she’s sure of just one thing: she’s not in Kansas any more. L Frank Baum’s character was, it turns out, born slightly too early. In 1901, a year after the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum wrote The Master Key, a novel credited with the invention of augmented reality via a pair of imagined spectacles that could map information on to whatever or whomever its wearer looked at. Had Dorothy owned a pair, she might have learned that she’d been whisked to Oz, or that her new friend the Tin Man was in need of a heart, even, perhaps, that a wicked witch is burned not by fire, but by water.
It was almost a century until Baum’s invention gained a label. In a 1992 research paper, the Boeing engineers Thomas Caudell and David Mizell described a pair of “see-thru virtual reality goggles”, a device that would enhance the vision of factory workers with the complicated task of piecing together a jumbo jet’s nests of internal wiring with dynamically changing labels and information. Caudell termed this principle of annotating the seen world “augmented reality”, thereby formalising for Silicon Valley’s mavens and investors a fresh and unplundered field of technological opportunity, one that would eventually lead to the invention of Google Glass, a pair of information-spewing spectacles built, unbelievably, to Baum’s century-old definition.
If the breathless press releases are to be believed, 2016 has been the year of virtual reality – a discarded technology that, thanks to the revolution in low-cost components heralded by smartphones, is currently enjoying a lavish revival. Sony, Facebook and HTC have all launched expensive, miraculous visors that transport us into fabricated realities, fooling the brain into believing that, like Dorothy, we’ve been bodily transported to another place. At its best, VR allows us to visit places too remote, too dangerous or too expensive to otherwise reach. Documentarians are using the nascent medium to allow us to experience life through the eyes of another. But VR technology also has numerous drawbacks. As well as the cost (just 3% of Britons are expected to invest in a serious headset this year, the cheapest of which costs £350, even without the PlayStation needed to run it) there’s also the sense of vulnerability that wearers experience while sitting blind in front of the television, as well as the perils of bumping into furniture. As one Microsoft spokesperson put it, VR users are “best advised to stay seated or keep still to avoid collisions”.