Tracking Reality Overlays

The Economist ‘s recent science and technology special published some of the most interesting, and sensible, items I’ve seen in a while on the interface between the virtual and the real. Two articles, "Playing Tag" and "Reality, Only Better", reviewed mobile social network platforms and augmented reality technology, respectively.

The leader item, "Better Together", summed up the early utopian and anarchic glee surrounding the chaos and ungovernability of the internet, when "the idea that it represented an entirely new and separate realm, distinct from the real world, was seized upon by both advocates and critics of the new technology."

Advocates, The Economist writes, "liked the idea that the virtual world was a placeless datasphere, liberated from constraints and restrictions of the real world, and an opportunity for a fresh start."

Critics of the internet’s fantasy-land separation of virtual from real "worried that people were spending too much time online, communing with people they had never even met in person in chat rooms, virtual game worlds and, more recently, on social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook."

But new technology overlays have pushed things forward, as they always do. "The internet has not turned out to be a thing apart," argues The Economist. "Unpleasant aspects of the real world, such as taxes, censorship, crime and fraud are now features of the virtual world, too. …At the same time, however, some of the most exciting uses of the internet rely on coupling it with the real world."

The merger of real and virtual is fascinating, though The Economist has stayed on the social and cultural side of this particular technological median, bypassing its nastier surveillance society implications, at least for now. It notes:

Social networking allows people to stay in touch with their friends online, and plan social activities in the real world. The distinction between online and offline chatter ceases to matter. Or consider Google Earth, which puts satellite images of the whole world on your desktop and allows users to link online data with specific physical locations. The next step is to call up information about your surroundings using mobile devices–something that is starting to become possible. Beyond that, "augmented reality" technology blends virtual objects seamlessly into views of the real world, making it possible to compare real buildings with their virtual blueprints, or tag real-world locations with virtual messages.

Personally, I like the idea of being able to switch on my mobile at a party in Paris, scan locally for any available profiles, review the approriate hottie’s online specs, and get right into it. Skip the awkward preliminaries, after reading through our digital social CVs. "Hiya," I can say to the cutie out back, leaning on the terrace railing. She can smile in recognition, though we’ve never "met".

-"Facebook, right?"
-"Last week… yes!! How ARE you?!"
-"This party sucks. What say we blow this joint?"
-"Oh, I can’t, I’m the designated driver, I need to stick around."
-"No worries – let’s just import some detail from this wild restaurant in Marakesh I was in last year."

Geohacked social networking fused with augmented reality services is going to change a few things, not the least of which will be social networking itself. The health benefits are also pretty hefty: medical referrals, treatment, and follow-up, all moderated through a virtual portal at the hands of a specialist two continents away, through the hands of a specialist locally resident, for example.

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