My go-to reference lately about the near future has been the 2006 novel Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. The novel is set in 2025 and the author depicts a world where augmented reality is ubiquitous. Kids still go to school, but instead of presenting the working of a turbine using a PowerPoint deck, you can make a working turbine appear out of thin air in the classroom.
Augmented reality is the addition of a layer to the world using computing. One powerful and ubiquitous tool provided by modern computing is GPS: many of your devices can tell where they are on the planet within a few meters (and sometimes better). It has been used for gaming for many years. For example, I have played geocaching, Munzee, Ingress… and yesterday I played Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go differs from the previous GPS-based games because of its massive popularity. Though the game has been released for barely a week, journalists estimate that it has 10 million users worldwide.
Some will object that Pokémon Go is not “really” an augmented reality game. Indeed, though it projects a small animal onto the image of your smartphone camera to give you the illusion that the animal is right there… the underlying software is not based on computational vision. It would simply not be possible in 2016… but all that matters to the player is that it “works”, it is convincing.
In comparison, I have put on Microsoft’s Hololens headset… It is considered to be “true” augmented reality in the sense that it realistically projects objects on top of your normal view… you can tilt your head and the object stays put. But playing Pokémon Go with Microsoft’s Hololens would be a miserable experience. For one thing, nobody would want to walk around in the street with a bulky headset. And it is debatable whether the Hololens projections feel more real than a Pokémon in Pokémon Go.
I don’t know how long Pokémon Go will thrive. Will it still be around in a year? Who knows? What really matters is that millions of people have now experienced the taste of augmented reality. There is no turning back.
The race is on to produce more convincing augmented reality hardware and software.
And this puts us right on track for the future described by Rainbows End.
Why does it matter? In the long run, augmented reality represents another pathway to extend human abilities.