In 1909, EM Forster wrote The Machine Stops, an extraordinary science fiction story in which every citizen is both a consumer and producer of media. They live in underground rooms, never meet face to face but are constantly connected on what we now call social media, and lecture for each other’s benefit on their favourite subjects (which is roughly how Wikipedia is maintained). The quiet revolution underway in augmented reality (AR) could create a world like that, in the creative space. Minus the discomfort of living underground.
Virtual reality (VR) is getting a lot of media attention, since it is widely expected to be the next big wave in media and entertainment. It’s only to be expected — it has its origins in gaming and every Silicon Valley company seems to be fooling about with headsets which look like they belong in space opera.
Google was the only exception — it set out trying to make its Glass look as much like everyday wear as possible, and bagged itself unbelievable coverage in the press.
However, the next big wave may be augmented reality rather than virtual reality. They use the same hardware and technologies, but there is a world of difference. VR immerses the user in a digital world. AR adds a digitally generated layer to objective reality, and is likely to enter our lives sooner because it has many more uses.
For instance, VR is useful for training pilots, including military pilots in digitally generated combat situations, without anxieties about losing planes or personnel. But what percentage of humans are pilots?
AR, on the other hand, has uses in any situation involving planning, which is something millions of people do. Legend has it that to plan Chandigarh, Le Corbusier used to take rickshaw rides with his young assistant BV Doshi, visualising the landscapes and structures that would be created. AR would do precisely that, and more. It would impose a visible future architecture on the present landscape and let you walk up to specific structures, step in and make some coffee in the unbuilt kitchen.
Imagine planning a city in a single layout with infinite granularity, in which you can visually estimate, whether future markets and future kitchens would feel crowded. Besides, everyone working on the project, from carpenters to CEOs, would share the same vision.
AR will have tremendous implications for media and entertainment. A few years ago, Hollywood was excited about injecting long-dead actors into new movies. Indeed, a movie with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in the lead would sweep the Oscars (maybe it would get virtual trophies, though). But it would still be projected on a screen and you would have to go to the theatre to see it. Now, imagine a Netflix-like streaming service in which you can have a movie of your choice played out by a cast of your choice. This would be in 3D and projected into your drawing room, somewhat like R2D2 projecting Princess Leia’s video message.
However, one size of movie does not fit all rooms. An actor who looks all right in a large drawing room would loom threatening in a bedsit. But figuring out the landscape is one of AR’s strengths, and it should be able to kindly adjust. Just a thought: would it be able to work the furniture into the plot? Actors do need to sit down when the plot demands it. To expand that line of thought, with a big dose of human-like intelligence, machines should be able to transform books into movie scripts. Make your own movie, play it out in your drawing room, using available props. Maybe even act in it, if you’re reasonably vain. And which of us is not?
The obvious first role of augmented reality would be to replace CAD/CAM, but one cannot help but wonder, if it would not excel as an alternative to traditional performing arts. The publishing industry could find it lucrative to sell very cheap personal performance rights, along with the standard movie and audiobook options. And then, of course, they would be crazy enough to create new departments whose sole function would be to send out takedown requests and secure court orders when personal performances appear on social media.
The results of retail creativity may be execrable from the point of view of a disinterested party, but that would not deter the creative spark. Back in the Nineties, MF Husain played around with the first drawing program in Windows. Nothing remarkable came of it, but his interest in drawing with a mouse was infectious. It may not produce high art, but machine-mediated creativity is a lucrative and interesting cultural revolution waiting to be mined.