Over the last 500 years, a series of mass media formats have revolutionized human communication, from the Gutenberg printing press to the Internet. Now the stage is set for the emergence of the next great mass media format, which mobile media expert Tomi Ahonen predicts will be a technology called augmented reality.
Though anticipated by concepts like the Star Trek Holodeck, augmented reality is not science fiction. It is already being used through mobile devices like smartphones, while devices like Google’s Project Glass are being developed specifically for augmented reality applications.
The First 7 Great Media Formats
Tomi Ahonen, a leading writer on mobile media, says the seven greatest mass media formats in history have been print, audio recordings, cinema, radio, television, the Internet and mobile media. Each of these has spread quickly around the world, causing fundamental shifts in the way we communicate with each other and structure our societies. The first books and newspapers made information publicly available to people who had previously relied on word of mouth, and just last year, mobile media played a key role in the Arab Spring. Augmented reality’s potential remain to be seen, but this extraordinary technology is already spreading throughout the world.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Google Glass image, courtesy of Google.
Augmented reality is a mode of communication defined by augmenting ordinary human perception by delivering additional information and/or sensory stimulation in real time. For instance, while wearing Google’s prototype augmented reality glasses, a user can walk around a foreign city and see a translation of any foreign sign they look at into their native language. Augmented reality could also provide information about any landmark a person looks at, like having a guidebook built into your head, or dictate walking directions into a person’s ear based on their position in a city and what they’re looking at.
300,000 Hong Kong Butterflies
One fascinating application of augmented reality can be found in Hong Kong. Virtual butterflies are currently flying around Hong Kong, offering coupons to any augmented reality user who can capture one. Hunting for these butterflies with camera phones provides adventure for locals and tourists, while the coupons connect merchants to consumers. The butterfly app alone has already reached 300,000 users, and Ahonen says there are already more than 5 million augmented reality consumers. Ahonen projects that by the year 2020, 1 billion people will be using augmented reality. As computing power and the complexity of augmented reality increases, a growing number of users will discover together what this mass media format means for our society.
How Will Augmented Reality Affect Our Lives?
If Ahonen’s projections about the rapidly rising number of augmented reality users prove correct, the technology will cause a real shift in human behavior. The ease of accessing a constant rich stream of data related to one’s immediate environment will change our relationship to technology and to each other. A basic principle of augmented reality’s design is that it complements a person’s perception of his or her environment, rather than replacing it or interfering with it. But just what kind of social change this augmentation brings about remains to be seen.