Augmenting Alice

Galit Ariel’s new book examines the potential impacts of life in an Augmented Reality world.

A few months ago I wrote about a book that offered guidance for visualizing an Augmented Reality future, but didn’t really come up with good reasons to build an AR future. Augmenting Alice, by Galit Ariel, examines this latter concern in detail, focusing on how digital augmentation might impact our society, economy, and identity.

Augmenting Alice book cover

The author begins by detailing her fascination with, and ultimate disappointment in, Virtual Reality, using this as a springboard to explore the power and promise of Augmented Reality. Her definition of AR is vague but all-encompassing; she envisions it blurring the boundaries between real-world and digital content – so much so that the users can’t discern the differences.

This introduction leads into the core of the book, a broad survey of the impact of digital technology on our lives today. Using an Alice in Wonderland theme, the book’s chapters range from “Off With Their Heads” (governance and regulation) to “Who the F*&k is Alice” (redefining identity). Interesting insights are littered throughout; the author outlines the complex origins of the word “innovation,” provides a short history of proto-AR inventions from the 1960s and 1970s, and details the rise and fall of Google Glass.

But the bulk of the book’s examples and data findings are focused on social media, mobile usage, data security, and other commonplace subjects. Much of the discussion of Augmented Reality comes at the conclusion of more substantial passages about these topics, making the book’s purported focus often feel like an afterthought. For example, a section on sustainable technology, referencing Tesla, corporate social responsibility, and agricultural innovation, mentions AR only in passing, and in vague, conditional language:

“Augmented Reality might relieve us from our need to balance our ownership of physical goods, via enriching the experiential “value” of the product. Perhaps partially solving the diminishing resources caused by over-consumption and over-production, and maintaining the object’s relevance and experiential value through a dynamic digital layer. Environmental concerns caused by extensive commuting could also be partially compensated for by augmented and virtual presence.”

Augmenting Alice Spread

The book is at its best, and the writing is most focused, when it offers up specifics. A section on the “Big Players” (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) provides good detail on each company’s strategy for AR implementation. The chapter on governance, which I expected to be a snoozer, was the most interesting to me, since it connected real-world AR anecdotes with the self-regulation challenges and controversies currently faced by the technology industry.

Even though it was published in 2017, the book’s contents feel contemporary and relevant today, especially when they address ethical issues:

“…Niantic placed Pokéstops and Pokémon gyms on private property, disturbing the owner and encouraging trespassing in pursuit of augmented assets and activities…. Niantic claimed that users are encouraged not to intrude on private property, and to ‘adhere to the rules of the human world,’ which should be enough for it to claim no responsibility. This strange argument implied that, on one hand, they realize that augmented content and engagement effect the real world, yet should not be considered an integral part of it.”

augmented reality infographic

The book is handsomely designed, and only after completing it did I remember that it incorporates about two dozen AR triggers; I downloaded the free app and checked it out. Chapter introductions stick with the book’s theme, triggering animating Alices, teacups, and playing cards. Infographics add additional, 2D data layers that end up being difficult to read – this content could have more elegantly been incorporated into the original graphics. The AR layer is a nice touch, but is so superficial that it undermines the author’s ideas about making the technology compelling and useful.

Ariel describes herself as a “digital hippie,” but she comes across as a quasi-futurist. There are two kinds of futurists – the wonks, who look at trends and data to extrapolate “what’s to come,” and the visionaries, who operate on blue-sky imagination. In the book, Ariel is neither; she dabbles a bit in the wonk category, but I think she aspires to be a dreamer. Her vision for an augmented future seems very clear in her mind, but doesn’t come across on the page. Some concrete examples of how she sees AR working in our lives would have been welcome, and probably more inspiring than the vague hypotheticals she offers.

Ultimately, the author makes some good arguments for what AR should be – human-centered, ethical, secure, and built upon existing behavioral patterns and social platforms. I found myself in agreement with many of her arguments, but wished she had stronger evidence and a more decisive vision to back them up.

Augmenting Alice: The Future of Identity, Experience, and Reality

by Galit Ariel

256 Pages. BIS Publishers, 2017

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