Augmented Reality: Is There Anything Beyond The Gimmick?
Augmented reality has had a much tougher time becoming popular in comparison to virtual reality. VR has simply needed to become affordable with games that work, not just pornography and pre-filmed tropical beaches.
There are three main concepts wrong with bringing AR outside of the private space. Firstly, reality, even an augmented one, is boring; games are for escapism, after all. Secondly, not all reality is boring.
Pokémon Go has shown even the most introverted of us that there are beautiful vistas to enjoy, natural or not; there are tiny cafés around the corner with the best hot chocolate, and a PokéStop. Thirdly, developers are not entirely sure how to use AR purely for entertainment. It is difficult to go beyond education and bring AR to regular gamers, but it can be done.
Though stated that reality is at once boring and interesting may seem contradicting, it’s all about perspective. For example, there’s a game out there from the great magicians Penn and Teller called the Desert Bus. You may known it by the fundraiser, Desert Bus For Hope.
In this, gamers willingly put themselves through the game for charity. The Desert Bus is quite literally nothing but the trip in real time from Tuscon to Vegas. You drive a bus with nothing else in the game but badly rendered desert. If you swerve off the road, you get towed all the back to beginning and have to start over. This is all in real time, the towing and the driving. So if you somehow don’t die of boredom, that’s 8 hours of driving.
The Desert Bus is a game that tells you plainly, you couldn’t possibly want reality. As Noah Caldwell-Gervais states in his video The Desert Bus (A Southwestern Ramble), “what’s the 8 hours between Tuscon and Vegas but sand and bullsh*t. Friend, are you telling me honestly you want a game about sand and bullsh*t?”
So yes, reality can be incredibly boring. How can AR enhance reality at all when our rooms, our houses, are as boring as deserts to us if put in the context of a game. The open world of real life is often filled with the mundanity of work. Even if AR allowed you to stand outside of the daily grind, what else is there? What quest, what enemy, can make you appreciate this cultural icon, natural vista, your own house, or even the AR game itself.
There are more questions than answers, but as Caldwell-Gervais points out in his video, reality is less of a desert if you take the time to understand it. Reality, according to Noah, is a place of contradictions: of a racist douchebag that is building a castle purely for the public, rich or poor, or a desert filled with geological wonders and vastly diverse landscapes. The trip between Tuscon and Vegas is suddenly more appealing when viewed through this lens.
But to wax poetic about nature is easy — writers have been doing it for centuries. So how would AR work against a beautiful reality? As example, a YouTube user by the name of Abhishek Singh created the entire first Super Mario Bros level for the Microsoft HoloLens. He shows it off in New York City’s Central Park and it becomes immediately apparent why AR is just plain awkward in reality.
As he is going through the level, people are walking by, giving looks and generally extremely confused. Not only that, Singh himself doesn’t seem to be having as much fun as one would think playing the game. There are no consequences to failing a jump, the Goombas don’t really attack him, and he can walk around the virtual obstacle course easily. Never mind that there is quite literally very few places where you could play a game like this. You would need a long strip of even ground, something you’re less likely to accidentally trip over, it needs to be a relatively unpopulated so you don’t run into anyone, and it needs to be a public space or an area you have the right to use.
As you can gather, the logistics are complicated to say the least. But that seems to pale in comparison to the vastly different expectations we have of games. When you climb a mountain to see the view, you do not expect reality to awe you with graphical and artistic quality. You do not expect the mountain view to pay you in a power up, or a decent boss fight.
But, it can — if there is internet and Pokémon Go. However, internet is a rare thing out in the mountains. The long wired fingers of AT&T only reach so far before things like government protected land and animals get in the way. Never mind the yearly forest fires that would destroy any work done to install the necessary cables.
Which brings us back to the logistics of AR: privacy and property. Augmented reality cannot put a digital layer over the world without some serious consequences. The very placement of Pokémon Go‘s Gyms and PokéStops have already managed to violate privacy or property laws. If AR were to be more popular, or used in a more immersive way, looking out for physical harm or lawbreaking, becomes much more difficult.
The layers of bureaucracy involved with even a simple game like Pokémon Go can get tangled very easily. PvP mode, for example, would require a friend code system. There is no logistical way to jump the hurdle of privacy if you could encounter random players and battle. Having the whole world know your location at all times is a lot more scary than Big Brother Google using your location to advertise at you.
As such, even if augmented reality could help encourage interaction with reality, there are severe limits due to our unwillingness to forgo a great deal of personal freedom. I’ll be frank, I’m not ready for the digital world to invade reality like that either. My games are my escapism, reality is to be enjoyed in small doses. Most especially when I am camping in the middle of nowhere, far away from any kind of digital technology, AR or otherwise. I choose my reality as carefully as I choose my games; AR would choose for me, regardless of the games it might possess one day.