A Call for Diminished Reality

(a copy of my weekly syndicated column. Podcast from the BBC here.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

A Call for Diminished Reality

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

Google’s New Interface: The Earth

image

I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

image

Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Escape to Streetlevel

Everyscape1

Next up: cities you can drive through, and not from above, or fake worlds where everyone has big chests. Real cities, from all angles. It’s called EveryScape.

The company calls it “the world’s first interactive eye-level search that offers Web users a totally immersive world on the Internet.” A “virtual experience of all metropolitan, suburban and rural areas in which visitors can share their stories and opinions about real-life daily experiences against a photo-realistic backdrop ranging from streets and cities, communities, restaurants, schools, real estate and the like.” Yes, I’m not crazy about the lingo, but the idea is a cool one: Just try the preview of San Francisco’s Union Square.

Using a Flash-enabled browser you move through the terrain and ground level (in the middle of the street), and then can tilt your view through all angles. You can click on certain markers for more information, or enter certain buildings. You “window shop storefronts as well as tour the inside of those stores, see their offerings, and access published reviews and other information.” You can add content such as “relevant links, personal reviews, rankings” and things like “a “For Rent” sign and an apartment tour.”

Everyscape2

Putting the stuff together doesn’t sound as hard as you would expect. EveryScape’s HyperMedia Technology Platform means anyone with an SLR camera can take pictures and upload them; EveryScape hopes to tap “into local communities and users to assist in building out a visual library of content that will cover the entire world.” A sort of Google Earth at ground level.

Great idea, though of course you can imagine there’ll be a lot of commercial elements to all this. It’s hard to imagine ordinary Joes allowed to plaster streets with their virtual graffiti or anything else that gets in the way of advertising opportunities. The only other concern I have off the top of my head is that Google Earth made some of us wonder whether, after seeing every corner of the globe from a bird’s wing, we’d feel the same urge to travel. Now, after wandering the virtual streets of San Francisco, would we lose our wanderlust?

EveryScape plans to launch 10 U.S. metropolitan areas this year.

Crash Maps

Another intriguing use of Google Earth: to map statistical likelihood of car crashes, from Ohio State University. Interesting stuff, though it doesn’t explore what I think is the key factor in crashes: unpredictability. In a place like the UK everyone follows strict rules (supposedly), so any deviation is unpredictable and therefore likely to cause an accident. In a place like Indonesia the only predictable element is that drivers won’t be predictable, so other drivers allow for odd behavior. Statistically, there should be many more crashes in a place like Jakarta than there are. Why? Because everyone knows other drivers will do weird things, and so they’re ready for them.

What makes this model novel is that scientists have now combined the statistical software with Google Earth–a program that offers an interactive map of the entire globe–to map the results as color-coded lines. Google Earth is able to perform this function because it reads the output from the statistical model in KML files; much as a Web browser reads HTML files, the KML files tell the program where on the planet to draw lines or place images, explains Holloman.

Google Earth — So Impressive, So Depressing

Google Moon is now up and running. Is it only I who finds Google Earth electrifying and yet somewhat depressing, and disturbing?

The idea of being able to zoom into street level is amazing. The technology is extraordinary. Wonderful. It’s one of those moments when you get a real buzz, as if life has just been jolted a yard or two down the track in one second. But now I can’t go outside without thinking how many satellites might be tracking me, or wondering whether there is any place on earth that can’t be visible from space.

It’s awe-inspiring to put little markers in the map and then zoom from one corner of the world to the next, from my family home in the UK to the hotel I’m in in Hong Kong, to the actual rock on Lamma I was sitting on last week. Amazing. But at the same time seeing a journey that takes a day or two reduced to a zippy flyover is somewhat deflating. What happened the mystery of travel? Why travel the globe if you can zip around it on your computer?

The whole zooming out into space and then back is fun, too. But at the same time all it does is remind us how insignificant we are. Little blips. And yet, zooming over the planet from my house to your house also seems to make the planet a lot smaller, and not necessarily in a nice way.

I guess part of me hoped the planet would still be big enough to satisfy a couple more generations’ wanderlust, but now technology is, brilliantly but relentlessly, making everything smaller, easier to find, easier to reach. You’ve got to wonder whether traveler Michael Palin and his ilk (and he still has a few ilks) are a dying breed. Have Google and GPS buried the intrepid explorer?

I hope not.