There won’t be one augmented world!

We love to dream of a cyberspace in virtual reality and the equivalent of an augmented reality to enhance our lives. But will it ever become a reality like we dreamt it up? What might stand in its way? Let me dive into some daydreaming on it today. It’s not a summer slump thing while we wait for the upcoming conferences (like ISMAR or AWE EU) in October, but rather a really important matter I want to raise awareness for today!

The tech-nerd dream we dream

When we think of an augmented reality future where everybody wears slim wireless glasses we always think of one world. One augmented parallel space we all share. People with different glasses can see the same holograms, share their content and experiences with their friends, family and coworkers – or even strangers, as easy as a messenger-click. Virtual objects should be persistent and co-exist for all. We want to share information and enjoy joint mixed reality moments like we do today with pen & paper, smartphones or computer screens: multiple people can see the content at the same time. We want to collaborate on this content as if it were a real piece of clay or white board. We want to have private assets we can grant access to, but easily share and look at augmented stuff together. Only by reaching this goal, we can throw away all our screens as Meron Gribetz from Meta plans. At the same time we want fully natural gesture and voice interaction with the computer (whatever natural means interacting with a computer – human-like while performing un-human new tasks?). We want force-feedback air-tap keyboards and more. Wow, a long tech list to go, not diving into the hardware and software or tracking issues yet. But the most important dream I share with many others, is: to have a democratic and open augmented space for everyone. The augmented parallel world needs to be an open-source and royalty free zone without real-estate agents to sell us a piece of thin air we as a society should own, or rather not own, but just share together.

The current situation

This leads us to the current situation of our digital world. Yes, the whole digital world for starters. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s and started into the internet with my noisy modem, I saw the democratic citizen internet grow through the 90s. Everybody had a flying toaster or dancing Jesus website (not pretty, but your own) back then. Now 2017 the websites we consume went down dramatically. Big players have taken over, accumulate services and the private website disappeared and we throw all our private data into the throats of big brother dragons. We’ve become their voluntary content creator slaves. Yeah, yeah. I don’t want to cry wolf or re-start some well-know negative vibes and second thoughts on IT. We can be quite happy that there are less dancing Jesus pages right now, one might even say! My point is: during early internet days people used the new media very democratically and thanks to some simple HTML standard and some lighthouse logo browser we could slowly have access to it from any device or operating system.

Now (due to a number of reasons) the number of digital platforms is rather slim, owned by some big cheese companies. Luckily there are also a number of popping up start-ups trying their luck during the gold digging phase of AR. Bubbles burst, some prevail, some show up again, Phoenix yeah yeah, but the focus seems to be different. Nowadays, when I want to enter some page or app, first thing I will see is a paywall or login-wall. One gated community after another. Everybody creates their own garden of happiness. Sometimes, because users are lazy, Google or Facebook will get some of the user juice, full nakedness and tracking of all users by signing up with their existing FB/G accounts (but this big brother topic does not belong here today). The consumer seems to be less sceptic and rather take the advantage and quick-personal win without additional effort or investment.

What happened? Do people not care anymore about open-source or democratic accessibility of data? Will this continue as is in a parallel augmented space? Are people less nerdy or tech-savvy to do so? Are we too lazy or is it just too early to do so? Is there even a better way to create this dreamy AR space as a shared vision?

What big players don’t want to share

Obviously it’s hard to create light field displays in your garage with a couple of remote friends or a simple github repo. The big companies have millions of investments and need it to create great hardware we all want to use. Comparing it to mobile phones, it’s only later when open-source hardware manufacturing kicks in and some tech pieces are a commodity. Big players producing the first AR glasses have big investments and huge risks. It’s totally fair that they want to maximize their profit and have a break-even soon enough to survive.

But today’s digital money is measured in personal data of users. Additionally, it will be world knowledge for AR. The user-generated content reaches a new level with 3D-world-scanning à la Tango or earlier stuff like Microsoft’s Photosynth. You need a huge user base for this. We could happily accept this for the greater good – if we had a choice or even knew what happened with our data and had some control. Creating a 3D world representation and stable AR tracking is a huge task, first on local scale, then city-scale, … world scale. Hardware production is obviously not easier.

With the hardware the companies have their lead on the market, but world data should be a shared asset that we all own. If we all only feed the big players and their gated communities they will again own the monopoly of this digital space. Will we silently accept when they track every move we make and feed us ads all the time? This could lead to an ad-clustered field of view like in Keiichi’s Domestic Robocop or AR ad graffiti problems: “Behold the AR internet – it’s full of ads!”.

Why should I care?

It’s not only to avoid ads in your glasses or about user behaviour tracking. It’s about democratic access and control of the parallel digital space – and about persistency. You don’t want to see your epitaph and last words of your grandparents disappear only because the AR-grave service just went bankrupt.

Would you rather use a standard JPG file format to save your holiday memories or go for a TGA or some other weird proprietary file format? Having closed systems and different companies working on these issues in parallel is not bad at all! But only until we reach a certain level of social impact and acceptance. As a citizen you would get dependent and reliant on a small company. As a developer you are annoyed by hundreds of SDKs to support or missing access. Ultimately evolution of applications is hindered due to limited access of resources (like geo-spatial data for AR tracking).

What do we need?

The ultimate goal must be to provide an open-source AR infrastructure, where profit-oriented companies can build up upon – just like the internet does today – or did until everyone started deploying their own closed apps to use. I’m happy that big companies take all the risk to create great AR glasses – but afterwards we need an open-world with democratic content and a descriptive system that we can build upon. Their USP might be the glasses, the tech. But once the infrastructure has been established, we should move on to a citizen-driven AR space.

Thinking about the tech for describing AR space… the base for tracking and positioning has been tackled in the past already. Georgia Tech did an approach to it around 2011, called KHARMA. It was an extension to GoogleEarth KML files to allow additional location-based info. There is the Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML) and there is stuff like OpenStreetMap to describe the world. We need further open standards like it to not only describe the world, but also to interconnect entities. Standards like the metric system, ASCII, HTML, car engines with the same gas or SMS helped to connect and have a society work as a whole. Independently of their manufacturer. Some small companies (like Escher Reality) intend to be the middleware for such an AR-space. I love the spirit, but we need an open standard for all of it – at least for the shared, multi-user tasks we dreamt about in the beginning.

Those activities do exist, take the Khronos group with openXR or WebVR for instance. But to me, it seems that too little invest is flowing into this. Especially from the big players. The big M’s – Microsoft, Meta, MagicLeap – are missing on the OpenXR page (at least not listed). OpenXR seems more focused on VR lately, but let’s not wait longer for the AR initiative! So, what do we do?

Let’s get cracking and hacking!

There are ways to deal with the symptoms (like blocking ads in AR), but obviously it would be better to build up an augmented shared democratic space now. Still, it’s early and people are just learning. But let’s not wait. As I see it, we should start hacking the systems now (don’t look to the image on the right!), learn from it, improve on it and share it. Then let’s build a digital democratic world-base like wikipedia. It must be non-profit and contain 3D assets and world tracking data (like OpenStreetmap or OpenGeoSpatial). The user can decide, to which layers of reality to subscribe to and set automatic filters to switch visibility levels easily. A standard link structure should lead to external (private, non-public, commerical) applications through a common interface. Further, we need these open file format standards to use on any device (like the small step by Rob Manson showing AR in a webbrowser).

It’s not meant to destroy businesses, but to learn, make MR spaces saver, support open systems and to democratize mixed reality access. Hey, CCC, could we think about an initiative for this?

Opening the gates to an augmented reality heaven

Ok, that headline was a bit cheesy. But, honestly – how to get there? Do we need to? There won’t be one single augmented world – which is good for some business or special use cases of course. There will be many spaces. But the one parallel augmented space we dream about should be as open-source as the next wall to scratch into – open to everyone, treated with respect! What would you say if vodafone phones could only call other vodafone phones? That’s exactly what’s happening in the digital space for years. I believe it is a shame and a huge step backwards for humanity. There can always be special interest spaces, but some standard should exist. Like being able to call or write your friends, watch a 3D video or interactive content, discuss 3D data and meet up remotely in a form of telepresence.

How to get there? I’m not so sure. People need free time to invest in this non-profit idea. Probably they must first run against the walls of limitations with the different gated AR communities, get fed up with it, the ads or restrictions there and see the advantages of the alternative. It’s future talk of an enthusiast. Society must feel the need internally.

Let’s remember what we want. Where do we – as users and content creators – profit most? What might speed up society and not block it (again)? Let’s keep this in mind. Closed-source is not always bad, but socially relevant parts should be accessible to all (like electricity, water, internet). It’s still early days of AR – and that’s exactly the moment we have think about these things to avoid puny walled garden fights and to create a long-lasting digital space. So, let’s support democracy with open standards today to have an open AR/VR/MR world for the generations to come!