Augmenting the continuity of experience

Each of us experiences a continuity of physical presence and the digital is our extension, not a replacement. Digital is a carrier of signifiers, which humans can interpret as a part of reality, like we have done with imagined myths, religions and many other story-telling devices. These do not need to literally alter our perception to change our behaviour. The path to the fluidity faces technical challenges and, more importantly for Animorph, it leads through forging meaningful connections between people.

Predictive null-pointers

Every innovative field of inquiry has earned its worst-case scenario labels based on big-media-fuelled misunderstandings. Most tech corporations choose not to invite the public in on how their inquiry is shaped. Just as AI is not only killer robots and surveillance trolley problems, and biogenetics is not simply GMO and designer babies, Extended Reality (XR) is not merely immersive advertising for helpless users wearing diapers under a drip. How this next-generation technology is perceived requires patient work, not on bold assurances in sleek videos, but on thoughtful and caring ways of improving our lives.

Anyone can think up a bunch of scenarios for dystopian blockbusters, and no doubt some of them may happen if we leave development of innovation to the incumbents. Identifying Virtual Reality (VR) with Facebook’s metaverse has been solidifying a “Snow Crash” vision of an escape from the grim reality. In our view, engaging with XR is not an escape from reality, it is an effort to shape it in the spirit of co-operation. Cutting-edge technologies represent spaces of opportunity to make a crack in the fossilised relationships of control, and alter some of the ground rules of the game.

New worlds start hypothetically, they emerge in a process of approaching pertinent challenges from diverse angles, often at different times and by many people. The more daring the idea and the more complex its execution, the more difficult it is to predict how it will unfold and impact society at large. Society is not static. While the cybernetic inventions are taking hold, the world continues to evolve, and the variables cannot be contained by endless market expansion and revenue growth predictions. Technology has to adapt in tandem with noisy reality, and people who influence it are the stewards of the trajectory.

Imagineered worlds

Our reality is always altered, never ‘pure’. XR, or Mixed Reality as seen by Milgram and Kishino, departs from ‘Real environment’ and ventures through Augmented Reality and Augmented Virtuality. This taxonomy is more fluid and acknowledges bleeding between the means of immersion. It lends itself to the continuity of our experience, opening the interface with human perception and behaviour.

A spectrum of realities from real, through video, to virtual, with technologies plotted along it.
A spectrum of realities from real, through video, to virtual, with technologies plotted along it.
Milgram and Kishino’s Reality-Virtuality-Continuum, 1994

Facebook’s metaverse is just one of the visions of a permanent digital immersion. Magic Leap proposed a more nuanced vision of how layers could coexist. They take note of how physical and digital worlds are intertwined by Spatial Application Layers. Existing communication vectors can facilitate a seamless interaction with the existing infrastructure, sprinkled with exploratory entertainment.

While one can imagine many dangers of such an integration, Magic Leap does not aspire to give us away to technology:

“Some think technology will eventually become our master. We disagree. Technology should serve us, as individuals, and as collective societies.”

This vision, even if general, invites people to participate and shape the details of those encounters across the layers. Perhaps the trajectory of Magic Leap has shifted since Rony Arbovitz is no longer leading the company. They will continue making AR goggles though, and there is a lot of space for improvement.

Chasing state-of-the-art

The unfolding XR world, Virtual Reality, Metaverse, or Magicverse has been long in the making, at least since Morton Heilig’s Telesphere Mask (1960) and Ivan’s Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles (1967). Today’s XR might still resemble nuclear fusion that is always ten (or fifteen) years away. In the case of nuclear fusion the calculations do stack up, and the advances in technology are making it ever more feasible. And when it gets there, at a flip of a switch, we will enter a nuclear fusion era. Is this also the case for XR?

The AR and VR prototypes of the second part of the 20th century have been inspiring, but Moore’s law was still in its early stages, with hardware fast-advancing. We were not able to get anywhere near the resolution we can take advantage of today. Even now, some critical affordances are not there (brain interface) or are prohibitively expensive (human eye resolution).

Out of the leading XR companies of today, Varjo appears to get the closest to Milgram and Kishino’s vision of mixed reality. Their display-driven bet on traversing dimensions appears to work best due to the fact that AR has still not delivered retina projection that merges the digital with the real without the screen in between.

We are edging towards a robust platform for developing new kind of perception-driven software. It is just not evenly distributed yet.

There is no (reality) switch

Beyond the technological progress towards seamless interfaces, we require further leaps of thought into how people can relate to each other and the world we live in. The deep-seated challenge resides in how we foster this intimate digital relationship based on trust. Facebook’s foundational metaphor of the Wall springs to mind obstacles separating people. In XR, the meaning of being connected can be reinvented with new metaphors.

With XR there may be no flip of a switch that ‘activates’ a new dimension, it is a gradual extension of who we are. While nuclear fusion or artificial general intelligence might aim for imminent arrival, XR needs to be a listening medium augmenting our daily lives through expanding human potential. At each step along the way, we must transparently evaluate the goals and motivations. After all, XR is made for people, and we all deserve to steward our perception and habits.

We develop software that enhances human potential. Specialising in Extended Reality for industry training, education, and medical uses.