Augmented Reality vs. Low Tech — Ready? Fight!

Posted Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 at 9:18 am

I’ve written before about augmented reality, Sixth Sense, and so on. Here’s a question: Is this really augmentation? As augmented reality takes hold, we’ll have more and more people wandering around looking at their smartphones’ screens rather than what’s actually in front of them. The smartphone delivers some extra information, of course, but it imposes a cost, too: the information takes a while to arrive; it takes attention to process; focusing on the screen means sacrificing practically all your peripheral vision…

It’s a trade-off, and I’m probably missing some aspects of it. What I’m wondering about, simply, is whether the trade is a net gain or a net loss.

Another way to put this — in harshly evolutionary terms, in fact — is: If someone with augmented reality and someone without it were competing for some life-or-death resource, who would win?

Of course, I’m not the first person to wonder this. In 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote about Hiro Protagonist going into battle with a high-tech combat suit and a bad-ass heads-up display:

He stumbles forward helplessly as something terrible happens to his back. It feels like being massaged with a hundred ballpeen hammers. At the same time… a screaming red display flashes up on the goggles informing him that the millimeter-wave radar has noticed a stream of bullets headed in his direction and would you like to know where they came from, sir?

Hiro has just been shot in the back with a burst of machine-gun fire. All of the bullets have slapped into his vest and dropped to the floor, but in doing so they have cracked about half of the ribs on that side of his body and bruised a few internal organs. He turns around, which hurts.

The [enemy who’s shooting at him] has … whipped out another weapon. It says so right on Hiro’s goggles: PACIFIC ENFORCEMENT HARDWARE, INC. MODEL SX-29 RESTRAINT PROJECTION DEVICE (LOOGIE GUN). […]

He turns off all of the techno-shit in his goggles. All it does is confuse him; he stands there reading statistics about his own death even as it’s happening to him. Very post-modern. Time to get immersed in Reality, like all the people around him.

As prophetic as Snow Crash was, though, Stephenson was nowhere near the first to tackle the topic of high- versus low-tech in combat situations. Way back in 1959, Robert Heinlein wrote, in Starship Troopers:

If you load a mudfoot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped — say with a stone ax — will sneak up on him and bash his head in while he’s trying to read a vernier.

Of course, Heinlein isn’t arguing against giving soldiers high-tech gadgets; this is in the context of the introduction of powered armor as a major sci-fi trope. The important part of the quote above isn’t “a lot of gadgets”; it’s ones “that he has to watch”.

Which is a good way of saying that maybe it was more of a user-interface problem. (And, of course, Stephenson was probably familiar with the Heinlein book, and may have even been deliberately tipping his hat to it.)

Smartphone users today don’t usually have to face life-or-death situations (unless you count crossing the street in a busy city). But it’s worth considering whether we could make our user interfaces any easier to use.

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