This is the Future of Augmented Reality? Let’s Hope Not.

Creepy.  Deceptive.  Perhaps even misogynistic.

These are not words you’d want associated with your industry.  Yet they are accurate descriptions of the lead characters in two wildly popular concept videos depicting users of augmented reality eyewear in the relatively near future.

There are several similarities, and some important differences, between the two videos.  The first is a 7-minute short film called Sight, released in August 2012.  [SPOILERS AHEAD.]  It follows a young man in his late 20s/early 30s as he prepares for and goes out on a date.  Both he and his date wear the “Sight” line of AR contact lenses, which in that future has become commonplace.  The main character, it turns out, works for the company, and the plot centers around his use of a “dating app” installed on his contacts.  The app acts as his wingman, reading the woman’s body language for signs of interest and intoxication, and giving helpful suggestions such as “act interested” and “suggest different location.”

These tips become vital for helping him overcome some early faux pas in the date and in eventually persuading her to come home with him for a nightcap.  The system apparently even “keeps score” of his successes and awards badges for in-date accomplishments.  It’s those badges that ultimately give him away; when his date sees the virtual icons with her own contacts and recognizes that she’s being played, she storms off toward the door.

That’s when the lead character’s creepiness goes from subtle to overt.  He commands her to stop, and she freezes.  Exactly why is unclear; there is debate in my circles as to whether the system somehow takes control of her body, or whether she was a virtual character all along, a test run of the dating program.  In any event, his mastery over her actions is clearly against her will.  The video ends with him intoning, “Let’s try this again.”

The second video, released June 12, 2013, is remarkably similar to Sight–except that it is a three-minute concept video  by what describes itself as an actual AR company (complete with its own OTC stock symbol) working on actual AR products.  This video (which echoes elements of Sight, Google Glass promos, and the real AR Pool application) also follows a hip young man who uses a nondescript pair of AR glasses to augment his night on the town.  Our hero begins his evening by using the 3D instructions given to him by his AR glasses to hustle other competitors in a billiards contest, all of whom appear unaware that he’s being guided by prompts from his glasses overlaid onto the pool table.

He then follows up his conquest of the pool table by approaching a svelte, young sex kitten bartender and wowing her with the secret knowledge conveyed to him by his eyewear.  First, the glasses read her face to (somehow) determine her astrological sign, and register her as being “intrigued” by his ability to discern it.  A little conversation and a Facebook friend request later, she shows up at his house, where (as in Sight) he watches virtual TV programs projected on his empty wall.  The glasses then somehow figure out her favorite wine, and read her as being “impressed” by his selection.  The video ends there, but with the clear implication that the protagonist’s luck will not.

First, the good: both videos are slickly produced, and are clever depictions of the personal empowerment that AR could someday provide.  In each video, the technology works so instantly and seamlessly that it truly augments the users’ social interactions, putting useful information and options at their disposal.

But knowledge is power.  And the bad part of each video is what the protagonists do with it.  In each case, he uses it to gain an advantage (i.e., power) over another, unsuspecting individual, and influence that person to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.  In either case, if the woman had known that the man was using the app, it would have completely undermined the effect.  We see that in the Sight character’s angry reaction to discovering the app, and it’s safe to assume that the other video’s bartender would not have been particularly “intrigued” or “impressed” to know that her suitor was simply using his glasses to scour her social media accounts.

Of course, sex sells, and there’s a bit of wish fulfillment going on here too.  Men have been imagining ways to increase their odds with women throughout human history.  Nor are these videos the first to wonder how digital eyewear might be used in dating. The fact that the Infinity AR video is up to 1.5 million YouTube views suggests that viewers are liking what they see.

But underneath the titillation factor in these videos is the suggestion that AR offers clever users the ability to gain secret information about–and, thus, power over–those around them.  That same dynamic plays out with con men, stalkers, rapists, peeping toms, burglars, and similarly ill-intentioned types.  And it’s this association that can make AR feel creepy.

So it’s one thing when a fictional film like Sight posits such a future, but it’s another thing entirely when an actual company does it, and when others in the industry trumpet the video–which they have–as “the future of AR.”  No wonder today’s pioneers of digital eyewear encounter such resistance from the general public.  If we in the AR industry are highlighting the underhanded ways in which our technology could be used, you can bet that the general public will as well.

There are mitigating factors, of course.  For one thing, it’s hard to believe that any product as revolutionary as the one depicted in the Infinity AR video–which is light-years ahead of today’s capabilities–would be as unrecognizable as it would have to be to fool anybody.   As with today’s Google Glass product, others would see the digital data flashing on the lenses.  And even if the device’s camera wasn’t visible, most people would either have seen the product advertised or be so accustomed to the technology that they’d instantly suspect what was going on.

But the industry as a whole still has work to do in convincing the public that these devices don’t facilitate deception–at least, not any more than any other consumer electronics on the market–and in promoting safeguards and social norms to combat such misuse.

Then again, videos about safe and socially acceptable AR wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.

P.S. This is not intended as a slam on Infinity AR or anyone else, but rather as a discussion of the issues of public concern raised by the content of these two videos.