Insights EDU

Digital Divides & Opportunity Gaps: How the Future of AR Will be Divisive

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Barron Webster | Designer - Google Creative Lab | Google

06 Sep 2019 | 4 min read

Augmented Reality is reaching the mainstream. It’s in Instagram, probably in your default camera app, Ikea is using it, and it’s easier than ever to make your own AR effect. Though the future of AR looks bright, there are worrying trends developing alongside the widespread use and adoption of AR technology. 

The AR experiences we’re most familiar with operate on faces. Some new experiences, like Ikea’s Place App, operate on whatever space you happen to be in. 

But an emerging class of experiences operates in high accuracy on specific locations, like ‘the corner of 53rd and 8th’ or ‘Your local library.’ These experiences look like Google Maps’ AR directions, and even Pokemon Go, although this uses rough locations at best. Companies like Mapbox Wikitude and Spark are building platforms that let creators make experiences that operate where they decide.

Image showing what the future of AR might look like as demonstrated by using an app which run maps

There are a few obvious classes of experience that can emerge from this new paradigm. Searching for things in a space is a low-hanging but highly useful fruit — seeing exactly where in the store the peanut butter is, walking into an Airbnb and knowing exactly where, searching for a specific tool in a new workplace. The future of AR will continue to be tied to these kinds of practical applications. 

Once you move past that, there are a class of experiences that annotate reality in specific contexts—for education, repair, entertainment, and more. There are already companies using AR for repairs on cars, and tours and we are seeing VR used in the exact same way, immersive technology is poised to transform the enterprise sector. 

And once a creator ecosystem makes it easy for non-experts to author persistent AR content, we can expect notes, memes, virtual graffiti, and all sorts of other wild creations (side note—who has a right to post augmented reality content on private property? Do companies decide that? Do we fall back onto property rights? What about semi-private spaces? And—how do we manage abuse once content can be easily tied to real reality?)

These experiences make interacting with specific spaces more interesting, easier, and more natural than translating information from your phone to the real world — truly paying off on “Augmented Reality,” serving users different, contextually appropriate interfaces in different places. 

However, as these experiences become more useful and pervasive, and technology to make accessing AR becomes more accessible (read: most big tech firms working on glasses), the digital divide between urban, dense, high-internet-speed cities and everywhere else will accelerate. There’s a tendency to think of the internet as geography-agnostic, but the easier it is to tie experiences to real locations, the bigger the convenience/entertainment/experience gap becomes between those who live in those locations and those who don’t. This is worrying in the wider context of the future of AR as a technology – we risk alienating impoverished areas. 

Cities already have a leg up when it comes to digital infrastructure. There are more people to build experiences, more people to view your experience, more types of locations to build on top of. If you’re authoring a location-tied AR experience, you’re much more likely to get lots of people using your experience if there’s lots of people in that area already.

Even in Pokemon Go, where features in the game were algorithmically generated, players in rural areas saw less Pokestops — at first they were tied to semantic locations like gyms, monuments, etc, which (as you can imagine) occur much more frequently in urban environments. 

The question on my mind is — does this matter? After all, there are already digital divides between urban and rural already. Booking your spot in line for brunch on your phone seems innocuous enough, right? And having more potential matches on Tinder isn’t a game-changer? 

In relation to the immediate future of AR, the near-term danger is just exacerbating the opportunity gap. If you don’t have physical access to a space with many potential users like, Central Park, or a rich downtown, it’s going to be harder to build an experience that people can use. It used to be that all you needed was an internet connection to build a digital experience that everyone could use; but now, physical proximity becomes more and more of a resource.

The far-term danger is that if we ever get to a point where people are regularly using AR glasses, or at least regularly using AR products, there’s potential for different ideologies to be embedded in the digital/physical world depending on where you are. The canonical dystopian vision is the AR app that tells you who people are by looking at them, but potentially more insidious are smaller things like seeing local recommendations overlaid on areas, or filtering out aural annoyances — basically anything that means different people perceive the same physical world through a different lens.

We think in terms of the tools we have access to. As those tools become more geographically biased and local, so does the way we think. 

So, what does this mean for the future of AR? It’s important that we raise and consider these core challenges, the creation of digital divides and opportunity gaps, so they don’t grow to become unwieldy challenges.

About the author:

Barron Webster is a designer at Google Creative Lab and adjunct professor at The School of Visual Arts.

Google Creative Lab is a group of interdisciplinary thinkers and doers. They are designers, writers, business leaders, filmmakers, animators, producers, creative technologists, and much more.