Augmenting the Gun Debate

Gun control–or, more specifically, the inability to agree on any specific way to curb gun violence–has been one of this year’s biggest political issues.   Meanwhile, 3D printing technology is making it increasingly difficult to prevent individuals from making and owning their own firearms.  Soon, augmented reality technology could add another dimension to this debate by giving individuals new ways to target and use their weapons.

It should be no surprise that the military and its contractors are one of the leading forces behind the development of AR.   An oft-repeated truism of modern society is that war, pornography, and fast food are among the leading drivers of technological innovation.  And AR has a lot to offer soldiers in the field.  Distinguishing enemy units from allies, visualizing the insides of buildings, and heads-up display of directions and targeting information are only a few of the more obvious applications.

Nor are these new ideas.  Fighter pilots have used heads-up displays for decades, and virtually every combat-themed video game on the market demonstrates the utility of having these tools available.

In fact, the earliest example I can think of goes back to the mid-1980s animated series Robotech.  In one episode, the character Louie Nichols develops an eyewear-based controller for a video game used for training military pilots.  After he uses them to set a new score, an onlooker exclaims, “It’s as if there’s a machine gun built right into your glasses!”  “Exactly,” Louie explains. “The glasses pick up the movements of my pupils and respond with impulses which program the memory in the cartridge. The cartridge remembers the patterns on my pupils, producing a recognizable firing zone, which is activated by organic impulses produced when my pupils intercept the reflected light from the target.” He calls it Nichols’s Special Vision Track Firing System (VTFS), or the “Pupil Pistol.”  Nichols’ superiors promptly copy the technology and incorporate it into their pilots’ targeting computers.

It’s also a truism that government-funded technologies eventually tend to filter down into the public’s hands.  From Tang to assault rifles to spaceflight, companies quickly figure out how to commercialize military-funded capabilities.

Military AR will follow this same trend, sooner or later.   Shooting games are already some of the most popular AR applications for mobile devices, and geeks around the world are salivating in anticipation of the first truly immersive first-person shooter game in AR.  (See the videos below for just a couple examples.)  How much longer until gun stores sell heads-up targeting accessories for real handguns?  Or suppose that AR is used by criminals to place digital bounties on certain places or people, visible only by others using a certain AR darknet.  Even more unnerving would be weapons that target certain individuals based on AR information that they share about themselves, once augmented social networks gain more traction.  Displaying information about one’s self as they walk down the street would make it that much easier for someone to pick targets with particular attributes out of a crowd.  Even militarized versions of video game-style self-monitoring data (such as vital signs, ammunition, wind conditions and nearby threats) would be enough to make criminal shooters that much more dangerous in a public setting.

Of course, none of these are reasons to ban AR from the marketplace, as if such a thing were even possible.  AR, like the internet before it, will be another ubiquitous medium for data transmission.  Even tying AR into private weapons is not necessarily a categorically bad or good idea.  But the first time that a rogue gunman uses his digital eyewear in connection with shooting civilians, you can bet that we’ll hear calls to ban the technology.  So let’s give some thought ahead of time to how AR can and should be used in connections with firearms.

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