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Sight Licenses

BERG's Matt Jones asked if I'd be willing to contribute a short essay to a print item he was designing, a little something called SVK. Written by Warren Ellis, drawn by D'Israeli, foreword by William Gibson. Yeah, let me think about that and get back to you.

Because the plot of SVK concerns an unusual form of augmented reality technology, Matt asked if I'd do a little exploration of some of the other impacts of AR. Here's what I came up with:

Sight Licenses

With early prototypes already in the labs, augmented reality (AR) contact lenses promise to be a commonplace tool by sometime in the next decade. Most AR enthusiasts talk about environmental information or social networking as key uses of the technology, but they’re missing the larger vision: AR lenses will allow real-time control -- and pricing -- of what we see.

AR lenses would work by putting a visual layer over what you’re looking at, as identified by a combination of location information and local transponders. That visual layer can be anything from mapping info to text bubbles to animations; as the technology improves, limits such as data rates, graphic resolution, and image placement precision will become non-issues. By the time AR lenses become commonplace, the experience could be seamless.

Right now, we control what can be seen by putting walls -- physical or technological -- around that which we want to limit. These mediated experiences are exceptions to the normal rule that, if it’s in public, you can see it. But with AR lenses, all visual experiences can be mediated, no matter the place or the format. By adding a transponder or locative data, anything we look at -- buildings, scenic vistas, people, clothing, anything -- can have an augmentation overlay. That means the visual experience of anything we look at can be controlled. And if I can control access, I can make you pay for access.

In many cases, this will simply lead to the further expansion and sophistication of visual advertisements. Changing, targeted ads will blanket walls, roads, even clothing. Reality becomes a sponsored app.

As annoying as this would be, however, it pales in significance compared to the ability of commercial and/or governmental gatekeepers to charge for visual access to everyday experiences.

Architecture, fashion, art, all of this and more could be declared protected design, for reason of copyright or security, and the ability to see it limited by license or law. You want to witness Lady Gaga’s latest get-up? Pay for it. You want to gaze at the majesty of a new mile-high tower? Buy a license. Some designs may be impossible to use otherwise, the interface and affordances apparent only to those who have topped up their accounts.

What about the “analog hole,” removing the AR lenses to see unfiltered reality? The likelihood that the full extent of the design would only be visible with augmented vision is one limit; the hassle of taking out contact lenses out in public is another. Not using AR lenses at all would be unthinkable -- if the utility of AR is great enough to lead to widespread adoption of the technology, going without would be as socially, economically, and even politically crippling as going without a mobile phone today.

This mean that the current technology fights -- between jailbreakers and phone makers, between DRM advocates and open source activists -- aren’t going away any time soon. The battlefield, however, will shift to our eyeballs. As a result, any hope of a shared vision of the future should be set aside. Instead, we’ll be fighting over an increasingly fragmented, splintered view of the world in front of us... and paying for the privilege.

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