I Want to Believe: The Promise of AR Glasses

“I have learned from my mistakes… and I am sure that I can repeat them exactly.”  Peter Cook’s famous adage haunts me these days, as I read breathless articles about the latest initiative for AR glasses, the roll out of 5G, and the arrival of the Metaverse.  Any day now, while Qualcomm and Huawei battle for wireless 5G bandwidth, Apple or Amazon or some as yet secret unicorn of the technocracy will announce the breakthrough product that will make it all possible. 

A single teasing image of reflections in glasses set of a frenzy of speculation in Apple’s promotion for this year’s WWDC in June. But on a recent shareholder call, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg poured cold water on speculation of imminent AR glasses released as consumer products, calling it “one of the hardest technical challenges of the decade”, before reassuring us that glasses will be “the next computing platform”.

I want to believe.  

Much of my creative focus over the past five years has been in exploring the potential for mixed reality storytelling, combining physical objects and environments with digital overlays to deliver immersive experiences.  I have notebooks filled with projects that can only be delivered when this glorious vision of a physical world painted with digital beauty, characters, teachers, information and community is fully realised.

But I’ve been here before and I’ve been burned.

Back in the mid nineties, I’d developed a reputation for innovative approaches to storytelling and reaching audiences.  I’d created and curated a new kind of TV based on short content for short attention spans in a stream that was part funhouse, part laboratory. I’d developed my first interactive narratives for consumption on CD-Roms – a film noir detective story with branching narratives.  And I was obsessed with Myst, Robyn and Rand Miller’s exquisite and infuriating game world.  I was in Barcelona, working on an animation project when I was contacted by a headhunter for three American telcos, setting up a venture called Tele-TV.  

Within days, I was in Los Angeles talking to Sandy Grushow, former head of the Fox TV network and now president of this new venture. He was laying out the vision for interactive television, video on demand, VCR controls on any programme, customised playlists, interactive story formats.  Two of the partners, Pacific Bell and Bell Atlantic, already had test communities wired for piloting the system we would build, with plans for millions of wired households by the end of 1996. We would reinvent television, delivering a Galaxy of on demand content and interactive experiences.  In fact, that’s what it would be called: the Tele-TV Galaxy.

I wanted to believe.

Twenty five years later, we live in the world Sandy pitched and I bought that day, based on his reassurance – from the engineers at the telcos – that the roll out of fibre for broadband was happening at lightening speed.  The market would be there by the time we developed the video on demand product. Our team designed and built amazing products over the next 24 months – including a number of innovations for smart TV in EPG, navigation and interaction design and format that are now standard practice.  The test bed customers in Carlsbad, California and Reston, Virginia loved the service we delivered.  But the roll out didn’t move at lightening speed. It moved at the speed of a dial up modem.  Tele-TV stuttered, froze, and died a quiet death.  I went back to developing regular old TV shows and licked my wounds.

My mistake was to glimpse the future and be so seduced by its possibilities, I believed it was already here.  It took another decade for VOD platforms to deliver on the promise with the first iterations of Netflix, BBC iPlayer and another ten years for the plethora of streamers we now use.

And now I want to believe again.

I believe that AR glasses will give a wearer superpowers.  The ability to understand every language, to recognise anyone, to learn the stories of people and the places where they meet, to find their way through an unknown city, to discover layers of art, history and information, to play with reality itself, even to speak to ghosts.

I’ve played my part again, aiming to show the way – my AR powered novel, ‘The Ghostkeeper’s Journal’, combines the printed page with a digital layer in the ‘Ghost-O-Matic’ app. I’ve conceived a variety of digital/physical experiences with franchises like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jurassic World’.  I’ve worked on AR treasure hunts around town centres, and AR designed for the classroom.  I’m exploring data overlays and social messaging via location.

I am still a believer.

And I hope that the AR Glasses we’ve been promised and the infrastructure to support them will be ready any day.  With interactive TV, the issue in the 90s was about speed of two way data delivery.  With AR glasses, the challenge is not only the roll out of 5G, but more significantly the development of suitable (and affordable) lenses.  For AR overlays to work in glasses (as opposed to goggles or headsets like the Hololens)  we need to solve issues around available light, field of view, miniaturisation of product and optical prescription variations, just to start.   So the increasingly breathless reports about consumer smart glasses from Apple, Facebook, Niantic and Amazon, added to the existing efforts from Snapchat and N-Real, not to forget the ongoing ‘enterprise’ product sets from Google, Microsoft and Magic Leap, need to be read with a measure of skepticism.  The Metaverse as most of us imagine it will not be delivered by the first iterations to reach market.

What they will deliver well are use cases that work within the limits of the first generation lenses and frames.  This means building apps for which limitations can actually be an opportunity – for example, where AR is contained within field of view without breaking frame.  Or using 2D overlays rather than 3D objects in the experiences you build.  Smart design of early apps for smart glasses will be as important as the glasses themselves.

So I’m focusing on what I can make now, with existing technology, knowing it will pave the way for what is to come. We can start painting the physical world with digital stories, information and entertainment, even if it will be a while before we can see it all hands free.

I’m getting too old for broken promises. And I don’t want to learn the same lesson all over again.  But I still want to believe.  That’s why this time I’m keeping my expectations within the frames, even as I dream outside the box.

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