Augmented Reality by Mark Pesce

The Blurb On The Back:

Slated as “the next big thing in tech”, augmented reality (AR) promises to take the screen out of our hands and wrap it around the world via “smart spectacles”.  As a pervasive, invisible interface between the world and our senses, AR offers unparalleled capacity to reveal hidden digital depths, but it also comes at a cost to our privacy, our property, and our reality.

In this crucial and provocative book, Mark Pesce draws on over thirty years’ experience to offer the first mainstream exploration of augmented reality.  He discusses the exciting and beneficial features of AR as well as the issues and risks raised by this still-emerging technology – a technology that moulds us by shaping what we see and hear.

Augmented Reality is essential reading for anyone interested in the growing influence of this impressive but deeply concerning technology.  As the book reveals, reality – once augmented – will never be the same. 

You can order AUGMENTED REALITY by Mark Pesce from Amazon UKAmazon USA, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Mark Pesce co-invented the technology for 3D on the internet and is a professional futurist.  This slim but engrossing and deeply terrifying book charts the origins and development of augmented reality (AR) technology before looking at how AR devices could use the information they gather about the world and its users and how the same could be utilised by Facebook, Google etc and the ethical issues that could result to privacy and property.

This book was inspired by a speech given by Mark Zuckerberg at 2017’s F8 conference and expands on a subsequent essay that Pesce wrote for Meanjin in summer 2017.  It’s a slim book that’s designed to give an overview of what AR is, how it’s developed, what it can be used for and what ethical problems this creates.  There are comprehensive end notes setting out Pesce’s sources and a good index that helps you dip into particular topics.  Because we’re still within the development of the technology and waiting to see what comes out, you need to come into this book by thinking of it as a warning and an opportunity to get ahead of the issues and potential problems now by focusing attention on what could happen and what to keep an eye on as Big Tech companies continue to make inroads in the area.  I have to say that given what we already know of Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google, I did end up feeling more terrified than optimistic of the potential of AR, despite Pesce making some interesting points of how it can be beneficial.

Pesce begins the book with a look at the history of AR and the research underpinning it.  Although this is quite technical, he provides a useful timeline that gives you a ‘cheat sheet’ to refer back to if you get lost.  I found this really interesting because he builds in a potted summary of the development of personal computing and how interface design and the user experience became important but how it wasn’t until the rise of the smart phone and simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) using GPS that augmented technology started to become a reality.

Pesce then moves onto look at how SLAM and AR works and how in mapping the world around you, it is also simultaneously gathering data on you.  One of the things that comes through the book is how much data over and above what we already willingly give up via smart phone use can actually be gathered through AR sets, including what we are looking at and how long we are looking at it.  From this, he examines how the key business drivers of companies such as Google and Facebook could relate to this technology – in particularly their need to create “sticky” experiences that keep you using the technology while also allowing them to build up sufficient information to be able to sell advertising to you.  This, for me, was one of the most terrifying sections of the book because there’s already a huge amount in the public sphere showing what Facebook in particular is prepared to do to its users data in order to maintain its bottom line and how they are not beyond experimenting with content to affect user moods when it suits them.  The fact that Pesce seems to admit that an AR world with the sheer amount of metadata out there will need curating, is profoundly disturbing when we know that such curation can be done in bad faith.

I have to say that I was not quite as convinced by some of Pesce’s arguments on the benefits of living in an AR world.  Although his section on the benefits of being able to see metadata were interesting (notably I had not really considered how manufacturers tag metadata to parts to assist in building and maintaining things), I struggled to see how that would translate to a beneficial consumer experience.  It’s more than likely just down to my lack of imagination but given that ordinary people seem to like their tech to ‘get out of their way’ and either make things easier or help them to stay in contact with people they care about or want to compare themselves to, I did struggle to see how it would enhance the social media experience.  That said, Pesce’s frequent references to the Pokemon Go phenomena and his comments on the potential for gaming were more compelling for me – precisely because there’s that real world example to refer to.

The book ends with a summary of the key ethical issues thrown up by AR with Pesce drawing heavily of Zuckerberg’s F8 speech to identify and illustrate the same.  In essence this boils down to one things: if AR allows you to interact with your physical surroundings to virtually “write” on buildings and locations, what does that right look like and how does it interact with the rights of the physical owners to not have their property “written” on or interacted with?  Pesce makes some excellent points here about how this can quickly turn bad if “trolls” and extremists are able to use it to harass individuals (as in Gamergate) or further racist or extremist ideology by targeting locations like synagogues or mosques.  He also makes the point at how the most likely Big Tech “solution” to this problem of their own making, i.e. by giving individuals/places the ability to opt out also gives them a de facto control of the virtual space.  Pesce doesn’t offer much by way of potential solutions to this (he does discuss having an AR registry akin to ICANN to monitor where people can tag but that’s pretty much it), which is a little frustrating, and given how slow regulators and government has been historically to get to grips with technology related issues – not to mention how effective lobbying by Big Tech has been in neutering those measures that do come out – you have to wonder whether we’re ready for this new and somewhat frightening world.

Ultimately, given how short this book is – a mere 148 pages excluding end notes – it’s surprising and impressive how much Pesce has managed to pack in.  There’s a lot to think about here, including how we think about public spaces and the physical world and how AR could change that relationship, how metadata is going to be a bigger topic in public discourse than is currently the place and, of course, what Big Tech wants to do with this new AR reality it’s so intent on running towards.  Pesce suggests that we could be seeing commercially available AR ‘mirror shades’ by the end of the 2020s so we really don’t have a huge amount of time as a society to get ahead of this.  If you’re interested in the topic, however, this book is definitely the place to start in order to get a handle on what we could be facing.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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