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Reality is a matter of opinion

When augmented reality clashes with real reality, danger can ensue
Attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File)
Attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File)

I was just reading this article about real-life dangers associated with augmented reality. This is a fascinating article because it makes the point that augmented reality, which is intended to assist us in our regular day-to-day activities without blocking our normal vision, can nevertheless distract us to such a point that we would literally walk into traffic. Virtual-reality, which completely blocks normal vision and presents a virtual world to the user, is not expected to be used outside of a very controlled environment. Augmented reality, such as Google Glass [which is still very successful in the business and medical world] is intended only to make certain information readily available but not be disruptive.

The article about real-life dangers describes a series of experiments which definitely call into question the entire model of augmented reality. Put simply, is it possible for someone to walk outside and literally not walk into a pole because a virtual mail icon popped up into their peripheral vision. While the user could ignore the floating icon above his eyes, humans would tend to immediately respond to the image, virtually pull it down into their main field of vision and check to see what they have received. During this action, if someone is walking, or worse driving, the potential for a life-taking accident is greatly enhanced.

People who know me appreciate that I am ardently in favor of technological advances. As a foundational principle, I believe that whatever technology brings us is either positive or able to be fixed via more technology. In this case, if the problem is that augmented reality distracts people from real-life dangers, then there are definitely solutions. The question is if these solutions will be integrated into augmented reality systems before they are made generally available to the public. I wish I could say that big business always puts buyer welfare before anything else. But there are too many historical examples of when this was not the case.

My primary challenge to the argument of increased risk with augmented reality is that any technological advance must be considered within the entire world reality which will exist in the future. In this day and age, people drive on their own. But within the next 2 to 3 decades, humans driving their own cars will become a thing of the past. I imagine that my future grandchildren will not learn how to drive a car as it will never come up in a person’s regular daily life. When it becomes clear that a society, where every car drives itself, is a far safer society, no one will be nostalgic for the good old days when people they loved could get killed in a car accident. In this new reality, there is no risk of visual distraction from augmented reality. During a driverless car ride, augmented reality will be a safe and far more efficient way of interacting with technology than a keyboard and mouse.

What about people simply walking on the street who could accidentally ignore a stop sign or a red light and walk out into traffic, because of the distraction from augmented reality. First of all, if once again we are talking about a future reality of driverless cars, then the same cars will be extremely sensitive to pedestrians. These future cars will be able to predict when an individual walking towards an intersection will cross it. Even if the light is green in favor of the car, the car will slow and allow the pedestrian to pass. On the pedestrian side, the augmented reality solution will eventually incorporate safety features that perhaps display a big red stop sign right in the middle of the pedestrian’s field of vision, warning the person not to step into traffic. Most people still instinctively react to a big read anything in the front of their faces.

Often, the reaction of people to such a system is “what if it crashes?” or “what if the power goes off”. Let me already say that when we have a power outage today, it becomes a horribly disruptive problem after everyone’s phone and laptops run out of power. The last time I received a warning that local power would be shut down for a few hours, I charged everything up, as well as a set of external chargers so that my whole family could use our phones, connecting via our cellular connections versus my home-based Wi-Fi. The idea of truly being totally cut off (on a day other than Shabbat) was unthinkable. As such, even today, when traffic lights go dead and streetlights are dark, many people, including myself, feel a tremendous sense of panic. Fortunately, these events are very rare and will become even more rare as time goes by.

There is another factor to take into account which may be considered far less desirable to many people. On the other hand, it is a reality that I live with on a day-to-day basis. Due to my personal health issues I rarely leave my house. I have managed to run a very active consulting service for well over a decade from my home office. Over the last few years, I leave my house only once or twice a month. As such, an augmented reality system would only enhance my world without increasing personal risk. Admittedly, I might walk into a wall in my house, but I tend to do that anyways.

In the future, and I fully appreciate how claustrophobic this sounds, fewer people will spend significant time outdoors. The Uberization of all of the services we use, will lead to a reality where most everything will be delivered to us, including getting a haircut and buying new shoes. As robots take over the task of delivering items to us, and as advanced technology truly makes it possible for us to virtually try on clothes, we will all leave our houses less and less. There are obviously repercussions to such a lifestyle.  It would fundamentally change our entire interaction with businesses that wish to sell us their products. Shopping malls could very well die off. I am not denying any of these possibilities. I am simply stating my personal view on how technology will change our lives and how augmented reality will fit into this.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. When a new technology is introduced, especially one that drastically changes things, this usually becomes the impetus for the development of a whole range of other technologies that either enhance the primary technology or compensate for it. The same will be true with augmented reality. Whether one argues that such a future is good or bad, the time will likely come when no one remembers life being any different. Hopefully by that point, people like me will no longer walk into walls.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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