TL;DR: the killer Augmented Reality app is not one app. It’s adding one more degree of freedom to the human innate need to shape reality.
You wake up in the morning and your alarm clock is not ringing from the smarthone by your bed. Rather, your Augmented Reality (AR) device holographically wakes you up in your favorite way: you open your eyes in your physical room, but somehow your carpet is a flowery meadow and birds, or Metallica, are singing from your closet. Outside, the November rain is pouring, but you can just add sunshine to your window by issueing a vocal command to Arexa, your AR assistant so you can enjoy a nice sunny morning. Your love is out of town, but she can still materialize by your bed and give you a morning kiss. You have a business meeting, but you just put on that grey T-shirt and tell Arexa to show you as wearing an Armani suit or a Prada dress you bought as a virtual skin – everyone in the Metaverse will see you wearing it (and you can even post a pic on meta-social media).
You review your notes on that business meeting: you like paper, so you wrote them down, but the Metaverse can augment your notebook instantly with data available to you. At noon, you wanted to play tennis with your buddy, but he’s sick, so you’re launching a simulator that lets you play golf in your office with the colleague at the end of the hall. A friend is physically visiting Milano and sits in a coffee shop, shares the place with you: from your chair, you choose to have coffe with him and the Metaverse is projecting the Milano coffee shop in your room. He’s getting a hologram of you at his table. All your common friends send likes, which land on your table in the jealous admiration of the other people. You pass by a poor neighborhood where folks are not connected to the Metaverse, so you don’t see them. At the train station, you wait for your partner in the car and see exactly when she’s stepping out of the train although you’re on the street: she’s sharing that with you. It’s been a long day, so you start a meditation app thats transports you to a Tibetan temple for a couple of minutes before you fall asleep.
We’re not quite there yet. In 2021, Snap Inc.1 has released what can be regarded as the first consumer-friendly version of AR glasses, the current generation of Spectacles. Previously, wearable AR devices were realeased by Microsoft (HoloLens v2), Magic Leap (which recently anounced their next version) and other companies. A lot has been going on in Mixed Reality (a term that has been marketing-loaded by Microsoft to denominate what the rest of us would call “AR done right” – correct and consistent interaction with both real and augmented entities in the 3D world). It is tale-telling that AR has been removed from the list of Gartner’s emerging technology hype cycle, many taking this as a signal that AR is now considered a relatively mature technology, bringing solid return-of-investment.
And yet: how many people running around with AR glasses – rather than staring into their smartphones – have you seen out there ?
The reality is that, in spite of significant technical advancement and apart for a few niche use cases, companies and experts in the AR space are still looking for the “killer app” of AR in general and AR glasses in particular: that one thing that would turn AR into a mass-adopted technology, potentially replacing the smartphone. There are good reasons to search for that holy grail: everyone wants to be “there” when the AR revolution happens.
This has made skeptics ask questions like “what exactly can you do with AR that you cannot do with existing technology ?” and concluding that AR is currently sort of a solution waiting for a problem. While that might be true, it also happens to have been true for many disruptive tech breakthroughs, including those from horse-and-carriage to car and computer to smartphone: in principle, you could do everything they did using previous tech. But with new tech you could do it better and, crucially, more “anytime and anywhere“: you could go faster and further with the car and you could use your smarthpone in a lot more places and times that you could use your computer. Ubiquitousness is, it seems, a major adoption motivator.
Following this line of reasoning, why and how exactly would AR extend the current status quo of “anytime and anywhere” ? It seems that we already can use our phones anytime and anywhere and indeed technology is ubiquitous. What can a pair of smart glasses can add to that ?
To sketch an answer to that question, let’s start by observing that we humans don’t really live in the physical time and space. We live in an intersubjective2 reality, as Yuval Harrari adequatly puts it, built upon physical time and space, but transcending it to a certain degree that hasn’t been constant over time: ever since humanity’s dawn, we have tried to take over that intersubjective space and make it work for us. Our imaginative power is what sets us apart from other animals and has give us the unique power to evolve much faster that evolution alone permits. Long before computing, the first stage of what I call the take-over-reality movement was to created myths, religions, nations, companies and other collective naratives that only exist in our minds2, but shape our world – for better or worse.
Within those collective narratives, individuals have a psychological need to create an image of themselves that they like and seek confirmation in others. Then social media came along. Its main driver – and killer app – that made it to what it is today, was fulfilling exactly this need by adding a degree of freedom to how we’re perceived by others, which, in turn, reflects onto how we perceive ourselves, in a circle that can be either virtuos or vicious. Social media space brought along the second stage in the take-over-reality movement: control, to a limited degree, who we “are” in that intersubective reality, in the perception of others: friends (Facebook), professionals (LinkedIn) romantic interests or sex (Tinder), etc. It brought more “anytime, anywhere”, beyond physically meeting other people.
With social media democratizing the ability to shape our intersubjective digital selves, a complementary need arises: to shape and control our own perception of that intersubjective reality. We don’t only want to influence and control how we are perceived, we also want to influence and control what we perceive. And since we’re at that: why restrict to the intersubjective reality and not make a step towards controlling how we perceive the physical reality too ? This is where AR comes into play.
Social media’s killer app was adding a degree of freedom to how we can shape our image towards the world. The third stage in the take-over-reality movement and AR’s killer app is adding yet another degree of freedom for shaping both our image towards the world and, crucially, how the world appears towards us, including both intersubjective reality and the physical world.
AR’s core proposition is not AR glasses, which are just a means to an end, but rather something called “the Metaverse”: an explicit meta-reality on top of, and encompassing, the physical one (see picture below).
This is game changing in several ways, and I won’t claim all are good. In the social media space, the degree of take-over-reality is limited by a central authority (the network’s algorithms which decide what you get to see) and by the inherent limits and constraints of the network, particularly the decoupling from the physical world.
In the Metaverse, you get to look at the world through a different pair of glasses – literally ! AR’s killer app is your own cognition: you get to choose what – and how – you see and not see, filter information in and out, become oblivious to certain features of the physical world, enhance or change others, decide who and how they can perceive you and, generally, shape your intersubjective reality, as well as your own identity in that reality, to a previously unseen degree. It sure is a double-edged sword, just as social media is, and can span both vicious and virtuous circles. It also raises a lot of ethical questions which probably deserve another article.
We’re not there yet, of course, and I don’t know when we’re going to be. It is perfectly possible that AR glasses are simply not the right tool for the job due to their adoption friction. Maybe AR glasses are just a step in the journey and we’ll have contact lenses. Maybe implants, or neural links. But we’ll almost certainly going to have a version of the Metaverse one day. To me, it’s inevitable because it follows the same pattern we’ve come along so far: taking over reality.
1 about me: I work for Snap Inc. on the Spectacles, Snap’s AR glasses. Note, however, that all content is this article is 100% my individual opinion and is in no way related to Snap’s business or product strategy. I’ve been working in the AR space for the last five or so years, on experimental research projects (neARtracker), augmented art apps (ConnectedART) and newly on AR glasses.
2 Yuval Harari – “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”