Thesis: Even as modern societies struggle with the adverse effects of digital immersion on mental and social health, a second wave of even more immersive experiences is imminent, with unanticipated yet not wholly negative consequences for cultural norms.
Virtual reality is quite hard – augmented reality may be even harder, all said and done, based on my considerably uninformed knowledge of its inherent engineering challenges when interacting with the physical world. But as Oculus and other companies aided by massive capital infusions despite the fact they may never release a viable product *cough* Magic Leap *cough* continue to slowly advance the basic tech within the space, it isn’t inconceivable that we could encounter an even more immersive digital experience than that currently proffered by smartphones.
That does not bode well for the human brain’s ability to resist the chemical rush of notifications, always-on communication and the rare yet always treasured brand-new, high-quality meme. If you think memes have broken the ability for everyone under the age of 30 to converse normally now, wait until they are interactive (arguably, Tik-Tok is already doing this). But however much more compelling a more seamless digital-physical reality in major urban centers boasting advanced tech capable of simulations may be, there may actually be some more positive outcomes than may be supposed at first.
As #InstagramReality is already proving, it’s irresistibly tempting for people to try to portray themselves in as flattering a light as possible online – that’s just human nature. With more virtual reality overlays possible in videosharing and photos overall, the norms of any reality are going to be so obviously reset to impossibly glamorous, stylized levels that more authentic communication will become chic again to some degree. This is already happening to some degree – people will still obviously want to look their best but a new median will arise that tries to blend digital polish with physical imperfections more closely. (I tend to agree with Alex Danco – https://alexdanco.com/2019/12/17/ten-predictions-for-the-2020s/ – that glasses or headsets for virtual reality are a tough sell beyond probably just gaming, hence why I think its applications will still be primarily conveyed via smartphone interfaces.)
But another intriguing possibility pops up here. Deepfakes are already starting to proliferate, so it’s only a matter of time that they become a two-way street. Rather than used for lulz or cons, both governments and individuals will likely employ AR-empowered ‘live’ filming and photography to further their agendas, e.g. evade facial recognition or find hidden details or promulgate whatever narratives they want. Services to help evade identification and/or preserve privacy will pop up as tools available for any imagery editing while still being able to use social media like normal. Heck, that may be finally another use case for crypto-based payments that will help popularize them even further.
I’d argue that’s more of a social positive than may be suspected when one contemplates a future a la Blade Runner 2049 wherein AR displays are primarily for advertising or, well, overlaying a VR presence onto a human woman for reasons you can probably guess at. Holograms are still likely a ways off, but there could also be value in rendering communication in even more lifelike of a fashion via screensharing, or any manner of telehealth. Think of any given virtual appointment via videosharing you can conduct with a primary care physician right now – One Medical comes to mind – and imagine a much more lifelike consultation session wherein your phone’s camera scans whatever portion of yourself is visible and recreates it in a 3-D model for the physician to analyze on their end. (Yes, this will lead to hilarious videos that will inevitably leak online.)
All in all, there could be quite a few more positives to AR in the future than an even-worse digital addiction epidemic. As always, there is more nuance in reality than may be suspected at first.