10: Perfect Vision

The author begins with an anecdote about a photographer who lost his vision, but used his iPhone's capabilities to help him shoot and edit photography. (EN: I did a bit more research, and the account is a bit overblown here. The photographer in question takes blurry photos at odd angles, which might be expected of a person who can't see what they're shooting, but they're generally well-composed and visually interesting as objects of art. While I think it's justifiable to say technology has helped him to remain a photographer, the impression that it's fully compensated for the disability is entirely unwarranted.)

The narrative is meant as an indication in the ways in which technology can deliver an "augmented reality," giving even people who have full use of their senses a method of perceiving things they normally could not, much in the way that infrared lenses or a telescope gives us the ability to perceive what is not visible to the naked eye.

Augmented Reality

The present notion of "augmented reality" involves using a camera to enable the mobile deice to "see" and recognize objects in an environment and overlay the view with data from the network - much in the way that the surveillance software in a casino can recognize a person by their facial features and call attention to known cheats in the "black book" database.

Such technology has a myriad of uses. An iPhone could capture a person's face, recognize them, and provide access to their name, contact information, credentials, resume, and social media profile. Capture a picture of their shirt and the device could tell you what company made it, how much it costs, and where you can purchase it nearby. It is a futuristic vision that some suggest is very close to becoming a reality.

Augmented reality is not presently possible because the devices are not able to "recognize" an item by a camera image with accuracy, nor to run a query to retrieve data at a sufficient speed. There is also the matter of information filtering: there are a lot of objects in an environment, and a lot of information available about every object that can be seen - much of this information is useless to any given person, and different people express different needs and interests.

Some applications are approaching this level of sophistication for specialized purposes: barcode scanning is reliable to identify merchandise, and GPS software is generally good enough to detect location, overcoming the recognition capabilities of cameras. Specialized software can be installed that's specific to the user's interests and runs a faster query to find information in a smaller database.

While seemingly wondrous, the notion of augmented reality is merely an extension, amalgamation, and automation to the ways in which information technology is currently used. We may need to ask a person's name, then decide for ourselves whether to use Facebook or LinkedIn to retrieve their personal or professional details - which is only a little less efficient than taking their picture and having software automate the search based on the user's settings and preferences. The use of a mobile device rather than a desktop computer merely means we can do it instantly, rather than having to remember the person's name until we can get to a computer.

The author lists a random smattering of the possible uses of augmented reality: a video game that is played in the "real" environment, a repairman bringing up schematics of a piece of equipment, police getting instant information on vehicles in traffic, and so on. There are a vast number of applications for the technology, and a number of companies working feverishly to develop solutions.

Wearable Data

Another advancement of mobile technology is to overcome the notion of a hand-held device. In some instances, this is being done with the development of equipment such as headsets and goggles, which frees the hands of the user - but such technology is presently more expensive, bulky, and unfashionable: it's highly unlikely we'll see many people wandering about wearing cyber-helmets, and the notion seems to be a novelty that is used only in niche applications where being hands-free is preferable.

This may change: the technology could be minimized in size, and what is acceptable is largely a matter of fashion. When mobile phones first came out, they were extremely bulky and inconvenience, and anyone seem using one was regarded as being self-important and desperate for attention - but since it evolved to become smaller and more commonly used, the mobile phone has become more commonplace and acceptable, even to the point where a person may be regarded as odd if they aren't carrying one.

With that in mind, it's not so farfetched to imagine a future in which a lightweight, wearable computing device gains popularity, and anyone seen without a pair of augmented reality goggles will be regarded as weird.

The author refers to Thad Starner, a Georgia Tech professor who has been experimenting with portable computing for almost twenty years, during which time he has worn a portable computer, connected to a specially designed one-handed keyboard and an eyepiece data display. In his early experiments, it was a device of considerable bulk, with access only to the data stored on its local drive - as technology has progressed, he has upgraded his rig to be virtually pocket-sized, and connected to the resources of the Internet.

Naturally, Starner is a proponent of wearable computing and considers the ability to have access to any information he needs, or even trivial things he might care to know, as entirely advantageous, and the awkwardness and inconvenience comes from limitations of technology and the fact that it is, or was, a completely foreign concept to others with whom he interacts. But as the technology improves, it may so happen that the average person will be capable of the same.

Eyes Everywhere

Another side effect of mobile technology is that every person is now a collector and transmitter of information.

Surveillance cameras have been in use for many years, though their content has generally been unavailable to the public - but increasingly, "web cams" are available to the public: a news studio may have a live camera at its location, or the Department of Transportation has always-on cameras at major highways that enable citizens to check traffic conditions via the Internet.

To provide "street views' of many locations, Google has a fleet of Camera Cars that roam the nation, taking photographs from a roof-mounted camera of every street, sidewalk, and building. It's far from capturing every square inch of the earth, but it has captured the view from an impressive number of streets in locations around the world.

But this pales in comparison to the collective efforts of digital cameras and cell phones equipped with cameras in the hands of hundreds of millions of people, all over the world.

There is sufficient data in photo sharing sites where people psot their holiday snaps to extrapolate photorealistic 3D images of many poplar tourist locations, enabling the user to see the view from virtually any location and any angle.

The same is true of many public events - people in the same place, at the same time, are all taking photographs to document the occasion. And given that the camera is built into a cell phone, the ability to prevent recording equipment at concerts and sporting events no longer exists - as the technology has become ubiquitous, there are eyes everywhere, and it's not unreasonable to suggest that in many locations, a person must expect that they might be caught on film. As the technology progresses, it could well reach the point where a person can expect to be on camera virtually any time they are in public.