Augmented Reality and other predictions in Rainbows End

With FAA giving approval to Amazon to test aerial drone deliveries, one of the major predictions in Vernor Vinge’s Sci-Fi novel “Rainbows End” is edging ever closer to being realized. What about the other predictions from this book?

Vinge is one of my favorite Sci Fi authors. He broke into professional writing in mid 80s, when space era of Sci Fi was fading out, being replaced by the computer age. Coming from hardcore computer background (professor of Computer Science), Vernor Vinge mercifully avoided the siren songs of cyberpunk with its wild descriptions of life in virtual reality, which are embarrassing to read a couple of decades hence. Instead, he gave us a beautiful and thoughtful book illustrating his published scientific thoughts on Artificial Intelligence in “A Fire Upon the Deep”. Much later, in 2006 came “Rainbows End”, set in Augmented Reality world of a near future, circa 2025. Now that half of the time to the book setting has passed, I decided to look at some of the ideas and gadgets described in that book because it does what the best Scientific Fiction has done. It not just entertains, but also educates about technology and warns about potential issues.

The most important technical inventions in the book go by acronyms SHE and YGBM. SHE stands for Secure Hardware Environment, a hardware element that is owned by the government and must be a part of all consumer electronics. It is the means by which the government intrudes into the everyday lives of people. Not much is known about what SHE actually does. Evidence of its efficacy (security) is not clear.

This sounds like modern day government surveillance programs, except so far they are not inside our consumer devices. We know that government is pushing for it, though, and industry is publicly resisting. Ominously, unlike Vinge’s fantasy, governments are not even offering a promise of security to sweeten the deal. I’d score this prediction a partial hit – still on track, but not there yet.

YGBM stands for “You Gotta Believe Me” – a combined bio-electronic technology that, well, makes the targeted person believe the operator’s claims. The book’s plot revolves around an attempt by a sinister group to secretly develop practical YGBM technology. YGBM definitely remains something out of the realm of fantasy. Any commercial efforts to improve online/mobile ad quality so far are, fortunately, in a different universe from YGBM. For the sake of completeness, I’d mention that Russian government has achieved spectacular results with nothing more than conventional propaganda tools. Fortunately, this prediction remains a miss.

Following these 2 big ideas, there is a cornucopia of technological advances. Most notable and critical to the books plot is the universal use of Augmented Reality delivered through contact lenses and smart clothing. Augmented Reality is simply an overlaying of computer-generated imagery on top of the real world view (other senses may be engaged as well, but vision is by far the most important simply because of the way we are built). One example of AR that would be familiar to the american audience is the yellow First Down line in the TV broadcasts of gridiron football. The line doesn’t exist on the football field but is clearly seen by the TV viewers. It is different from, say, scorebox, because it works as an integral part of the field view – it appears to stay in place as camera view moves. To give you one example of what AR could become, imagine you are in a business meeting with a group of people you meet for the first time – and each person’s name and title are neatly displayed above her head whenever you look at her. Dialing it up a notch: imagine a language translation program paired with AR system so that when you look at a text in foreign language, you see translation instead. In fact, this is not a fantasy – the is an app for that! – Word Lens. In the military domain, AR exists in the form of HUD (Heads Up Display).

For more ideas, you can check out Wikipedia or just read the Vinge’s book.

AR is a tantalizing idea because it makes sense and it seems the technology to deliver it is almost there. Google made a high profile AR push with Google Glass. Unfortunately, Google Glass teased us with promise, but so far has failed to deliver.

In my opinion, Google Glass failed because it was not easy enough to use, even though the idea of bringing AR to the public is compelling. I think the Glass’ problem was in inadequate input technology – speech recognition. As an output, glasses may have been workable. But constantly talking to your devise simply is not efficient. Critically, it is downright weird when done in public. Note that Vinge’s fictitious devise featured “silent messaging” – an ability to communicate discretely, without attracting bystanders attention. And of course the public was offended by the perception of invasion of privacy created by the Glass’ recording capability.

So it looks like AR will have to wait until technology matures to allow easy, silent and discrete input. It will be as much of revolution as the mouse, which enabled PCs and started a new era. We don’t know yet what it will be – it might be gesture capture, eye movement tracking, brain wave reading, something else altogether or some combination of multiple methods.

And earlier this year Facebook announced that it also wants to jump on the AR bandwagon. Hopefully by 2025 Augmented Reality becomes a part of everyday life.

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