Monday, May 9, 2016

Wearable Reality

One Too Many Hands

This week, instead of bagging on the state of home automation technology, I thought I'd step out into the realm of speculation.  Specifically, the future intersection of wearables and augmented reality.

That these two technologies, one emerged and the other emerging, have anything in common may seem either really obvious or not.  On the one hand, augmented reality will require a headset or glasses or contacts or something worn over the eyes (at least in the near future).  And that something will need to be connected, defining it as a 'wearable'.

On the other hand, the end goal of augmented reality is to create a seamless bridge between actual reality and the augmentations.  The headset/glasses/contacts need to disappear from the user's perceptions as much as possible allowing them to get lost in the experience.  The augmented reality that people at Microsoft and elsewhere are talking about is that experience, not the hardware.  Think of it like a Hollywood movie: we are excited for the story, not the projector.  The same holds true with AR: end users need to be focusing on the new capabilities and not how they are created (unless the creation tool limits those capabilities).

But what I really want to discuss is a third way (hand?) of looking at AR which may make it the ultimate wearable.  If we are using AR to define our reality and to share this redefinition with others who are also augmenting theirs, why not define our clothing, our look, our style through AR?

Augmented Style

Clothing has traditionally served two functions: protection and self-expression.  Protection is the primary function, whether from the elements or the prying eyes of our fellow curious apes, we cover ourselves with this in mind first.  Fortunately, thanks to the endless competition of capitalism, we have a choice beyond protection and can wear clothes that allow us to express ourselves as well.  With AR, these two functions can be separated: physical clothes protect, but the expression can exist entirely through augmentation.

In this sense, clothing can be seen as the physical equivalent of a video game character skin.  Mass Effect, Skyrim, WoW, Fallout, Minecraft (looking at you, MSD) players have been known to spend hours customizing the look of their character before they venture into the game.  Imagine this same level of customization brought forward into our lives.  Why have a fancy watch in reality where it can be scratched or stolen?  Instead have one appear on your wrist.  There is no need to decide on your wardrobe for the day because you have your entire wardrobe with you at all times.  A blink and you are changed.

Of course, there are a few challenges with this vision of the future.

Reality Divide

The first is that we will all still wear physical clothes: that protection function still remains and cannot be fulfilled by virtual clothing. But why spend anymore on it than we have to?  Instead, wear something inexpensive that fits the level of protection that you need.  Non-logo'd t-shirts and comfortable pants.  Flipflops in the summer and basic boots in the winter.  It does not matter what they look like because no one will see them as they are.

Except that they will.  There will always be those that are not part of the augmented reality.  They either cannot afford the gear and accounts (and oh, will there be accounts) or they have opted out, choosing to live in the reality that is presented to them instead of the one they choose.  These people will only see the drab, basic clothing that we will be wearing under our virtual style.  To them, we will all be an army of bland wandering around doing incomprehensible things in a world they can't see.  They themselves will also be bland as no clothing manufacturer will spend time on premium threads when the money is to be made on threads that don't exist.

There will be those that can see reality and those that can impose their will on it.  If you think that the current internet social divide is bad, just you wait.

Secure in Yourself

Another challenge will reside in the hierarchy of realities.  Clench your teeth into your best Rod Serling impression and 'imagine, if you will,' that you have told your clothes to look exactly how you want them: collar turned just right, hems pegged (or not), the slogan on your chest telling everyone exactly who you are with.  But no one else sees your incredible show of sartorial splendor because they have all assigned different skins to you within their  realities.

Should they be allowed to do that?  What boundaries should be set within the augmented space when it comes to the consensus reality?  A few of these are obvious: no one should be allowed to assign a lack of clothing to anyone else without their consent.  If someone enters a space with dress code (place of worship or office, maybe some restaurants and social clubs), they should be informed of the code immediately.  But walking down the street or sitting on a bus, should others be allowed to mute your appearance or to only see you in their own applied context?  Does this impinge upon your right to freedom of speech (should your municipality offer such a right)?  Or are you impinging upon their personal space by not letting them change your appearance in their augmented view?

All of these questions will need to be hammered out before Augmented Reality goes truly mainstream.  Then, and only then, will we be allowed to become a world of schizophrenics seeing only what we want and what we must.

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