Right now Virtual reality is all the rage, and I think it will be able to capture a significant audience, but it is just a step towards an even bigger technical breakthrough: Augmented reality.
For those not familiar with the term, augmented reality is watching the real world threw a display (preferably mounted in front of your eyes like a pair of glasses) where you can see the world but where the image can be augmented with computer graphics that to the the person wearing the device appears to be in real life.
Augmented reality has some great applications: You can get way points that appear to float on the street when you are navigating a city, you can get name tags floating over everyones heads at the cocktail party so you wont ever need to be embarrassed when you forget peoples names again. Augmented reality will find your keys, tell you how when the bus arrives, keep track of your kids, show you how much charge you have left in your electric car, and translate all text in to a language you can read. The act of picking up a cell phone to gain knowledge, will seem arcane. When you tell people about the amazing things augmented reality can do, you can see their eyes light up with excitement.
There is only on thing: Augmented reality scares the life out of me.
Imagine a cocktail party where everyone can see how unimportant you are using facial recognition. Imagine a world where advertisers can hide competing stores for you or maybe just suck the color out of them. Imagine a world where people just digitally retouched away homeless people from their reality. Imagine when the online shamers comments literally hangs above your head for everyone to read. Imagine a world that will erase all opinions and expressions you don't already agree with? Imagine a world where political money can buy a world the reinforces their world view? Imagine a world where a computer program decides if you are to be perceived as threat that needs to be dealt with using deadly force? Prejudice will take on an entirely new meaning with this technology.
These are all things that happen in our digital lives, and with augmented reality they will invade our physical lives. How you will be judged in the future may entirely and inescapably be bound to what other people have chosen to put in a database about you, a database you are very unlikely to have control over.
Will you dare to criticize the police for how they treat minorities if that online comment will be hanging over your head at the next traffic stop?
The societal implications of who controls how we perceive reality, are hard to over estimate. Without full control of our senses, can there even be free will?
Google glass is the first semi commercially available augmented reality product and they have gotten a lot of flack on privacy grounds, but that's only the beginning. Google may just as well start using the slogan:
Google glass, when you want to be sure you never accidentally talk to a Jew again.
To be fair Google has said that they will not allow facial recognition on google glass, but since that is the killer app of augmented reality, someone will do it, and when one product has it, all competitors have two options, follow or die.
Its easy to say that I am being paranoid and delusional, but the problem is that most of our worst fears when it comes to social media has already happened. Our private lives gets traded as commodity, the security services have full access to all our information, and the social networks wash away any dissenting views from our vision in order to "improve our experinece". If there is a great commercial incentives for corporations to invade our privacy, the commercial incentive for controlling how we perceive the world would be even greater. If you think a company like Facebook who owns OculusVR wont release a augmented reality product that would nett them billions, because of any moral implications, then you are probably the one being delusional.
I think we can fix Social media by at least providing alternatives (I'm working on it), but what makes augmented reality such a scary thing, is that unlike social media it will be inescapable. If you don't want to be a member of Facebook you don't have to (I'm not), if you don't want to carry a networked surveillance device like a phone you don't have to. But with augmented reality you will still be a victim of the technology if everyone around you sees you through the distorted lens of augmented reality. What does it matter that you are not wearing the device, if the person denying you a seat at the restaurant, a job, entry to the club, a rental car, or an apartment is doing so because of augmented reality.
You can also ask, how optional technology really is. You may miss a party or some birthdays if you are not on Facebook, but most high paying jobs today are entirely dependent on using a smart phone. I would pay good money for a phone with a hardware switch that turns off all sensors, but right now that option doesn't exist. With the vast potential use of augmented reality its even questionable if we will have the option of not using it if we want to succeed in life. The problem is how inescapably useful this techhology is. The salesman who can spot the big fish on the street will just win over the one who cant.
For convenience we have given up our privacy, are we now about to give up our reality?