True augmented reality and the foundations of an agile future

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

Let’s continue our 3-part exploration of the next generation of consumers and the makings of our agile future.

You are probably at least moderately familiar with the term “augmented reality”. While some give the industry a hard time for being overhyped, research firm IDC predicts a steady growth in investments, with $17.8 billion in 2018 (up from $9.1 billion in 2017), with that type of growth to continue at least over the next four years. Many augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies available include headsets, tablet or phone apps, or in some cases other devices that display information on top of (or in the case of virtual reality, instead of) the real world.

When I say true augmented reality, I take those things into account as well as a few other aspects. True augmented reality means that every experience can have a layer of information presented alongside it to provides further context, helpful information, social connectivity, or entertainment (amongst other things) that enable us to experience it better. 

When  augmented reality is done well it can overcome a real challenge for consumers: reality can change with context. Context can be defined as time of day or real-time events, or it can be much more personal. If your map is your contextual view of where you are, and it knew you loved coffee, shouldn’t it show you different things than it would for someone who hates coffee and only drinks soda?

What we are really talking about is that technology will increasingly be used to enhance our experiences in the moment, whether for entertainment or education. This could be something rather pragmatic such as showing nearby coffee shops, helping medical students learn anatomy as they dissect, or it could be something entertaining, but the principles are the same. It’s a “layer” on top of what you’re currently experiencing which helps you experience it more fully. Let’s look at a few more aspects of augmented and virtual reality.

The browser-less Internet

What does it mean when our machines and devices are in complete harmony?

The Internet of Things (IoT) has made some large strides in the past few years. While not everyone knows it by that name, many consumers are buying devices like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, using Nest thermostats, or other Internet-connected devices in increasing numbers. Statista predicts the global IoT market will soar to $475 billion in 2020, up from $249 billion in 2018, at a growth rate of more than 20 percent over the next three years.

What does IoT allow us to do? It lets s us use the Internet without a browser, when and wherever we are, as long as an Internet-connected device is available to us. The Internet of Things allows us to access the browser-less Internet. What this means is that we have access to all of the information, computing and processing power, and other benefits of the Web without having to be interacting directly with a screen.

There are near infinite uses for this; everything from your Apple Watch sending you a Slack notification when someone messages you, to a UPS truck notifying its base of operations once a package has been delivered, to a refrigerator updating your shopping list when you’re out of milk. The browser-less Internet is the abstract view of the Internet. All the information, without the interface.  The interface is the exact context that you need it to be, whether that’s spoken words by Siri, the display on your washing machine, or an action communicated such as turning your living room lights on via an app.

The idea is that these devices and their services blend more seamlessly into our lives and freeing us from using screens to get what we need. This is a good and bad thing, however, to some. Perhaps because of their sometimes subtle yet always-on presence, there are some trust issues with allowing devices into our lives. As of the end of 2017, Cisco reported that only 9% of those surveyed had a “high level” of trust in IoT devices. While these trust issues aren’t solely relegated to Internet-connected devices but rather consumer trust in data privacy standards at large, it does seem to play a large part in their adoption.

This trust could be based on something as simple as the lack of interface to help select the best answer—instead Siri or Alexa decide which search result seems best. 

Or, it could be something more related to privacy concerns. Particularly when cameras or microphones are built into products without a consumer knowing of their existence. Clearly, there is a responsibility on the part of these companies to be more ethical in their disclosures if they are to build consumer trust.

Externalized memory

What does it mean when our brains are not solely responsible for remembering our experiences and even details about the world around us?

This is a case where we have been on an evolutionary path for centuries. When oral histories were translated to cave paintings, then translated to written words and so on, what was captured only by the human brain was now recorded in a more permanent and often reliable (though not always) medium.

I speak about this idea in more depth in my book on the history and future of search called Ever Seeking. To summarize it here, our ability to catalog information which is both public and private and index it in such a way that it can be searched at a moment’s notice is a very new phenomenon. Though other methods of doing so existed before search engines, including libraries, there is no other invention outside of perhaps movable type that has made the democracy of information so possible and scalable all at once.

But to take this a step further, what is possible when anything is available to recall immediately? Think of your brain as a search engine, because in a way it is. Any knowledge you have gained, any memory you have made is available through recall by your brain. The only real limitation to this is that your brain is only limited to things that have been “input” into its system. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, all get catalogued. 

What if your brain wasn’t relegated to things that only you have experienced or been told about, read about, watched a video about, etc.?  

Externalized memory means that the Web, using the near-infinite storage capabilities available with cloud computing, is capable of storing all the information, memories and other data we could ever possibly need.

Traditional augmented and virtual reality

What does it mean when software can offer a layer of reality over our own?

We’ll wrap up our discussion of these concepts with perhaps the most obvious examples. What I’m referring to as traditional augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), are the things that we currently know by these names. 

Augmented reality consists of things like smartphone apps that allow you to view “additional” information about something through the camera’s lens and are used in devices like Google Glass or even in cars as a “heads up display” superimposed on the windshield to allow drivers to stay focused on what’s in front of them. This additional information could be contextually relevant based on where we are or what time it is, or it could be relevant information displayed such as text messages, incoming phone calls or other things that are time-sensitive.

Both of these allow us as individuals to enhance reality through the use of an enhanced view of our surroundings.

What true augmented reality means for the agile consumer

Beyond what can sometimes be looked at as AR and VR marketing gimmicks and novel approaches using augmented reality technologies, the real promise is quite interesting. True augmented reality, combined with a willingness to engage in active learning, can contribute to extremely well-informed consumers. 

When instant access to contextually and personally relevant information combines with the ability to free consumers from staring into a screen in order to access it, we have the beginnings of a new type of customer experience. Enhancing reality with additional information or online interactions while shopping, traveling, dining, meeting, or anything else you can imagine, freed from the confines of a rectangular screen, and consumers are able to experience life in a different way. 

It might be hard to imagine a world where people are no longer glued to their devices as they walk the streets, though it wasn’t that long ago since that was the case. While smartphones have changed our lives in a good way by giving us instant access to the world’s information, we are heading into an era in which those devices will no longer be necessary to stay “connected.”

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

Greg Kihlstrom