Why ‘Augmented Reality’ is dangerous

Scary Face with Glowing Eyes

What does ‘augmented reality’ mean?

I’m not talking about what it is, I’m talking about what it means. That phrase. Those words.

I ask, because we tend to use them without much thought. Most of us who are familiar with the technology are aware that there is a gap between those who know AR and those who don’t, yet we still throw the phrase ‘augmented reality’ around without stopping to think about its impact. It’s just AR, isn’t it?

But language matters, especially when we are describing something unfamiliar. As an example, let’s take one of my favourite words: skyscraper. We all know what this is. It’s a big, tall building. Of course it is.

Buildings that scrape the sky

But look again: Skyscraper. Skyscraper! Sky! Scraper! When people first heard it in the 1880s, referring to a building taller than ten stories (!), it must have been a stunning and slightly terrifying concept: a building that scrapes the sky?! But over time, as it became just another noun like all the rest, we no longer saw the concept or its scary connotations — just the thing it described. What it gained in clarity, it lost in emotion. Simultaneously established and eroded by familiarity. But where ‘skyscraper’ was coined to evoke a sense of wonder, ‘augmented reality’ seems to be far less benign.

Augmented. Reality. Aug. Men. Ted. Re. Al. I. Ty.

To many coming across these seven syllables for the first time, it’s not just a mouthful, it’s intimidating. “I understand ‘augmented’”, someone might think, (although I couldn’t tell you the last time I heard anyone use it in everyday speech), “and I understand ‘reality’ – but put them together and it sounds…unfamiliar. Complicated. Maybe even dangerous. A threat. You’re doing what to reality? Ahh, it’s for techies, isn’t it, and maybe kids? Either way, I don’t think it’s for me.”

“I don’t know what augmented reality is, but I don’t think it’s for me…”

This represents a genuine threat, at least to those of us who believe passionately in its potential to fundamentally change the way we live. That’s why it always amazes me that there are some who seem to revel in the barrier this creates. I guess it offers them a sense of superiority, a feeling that they have ascended to a higher plane of existence reserved for the initiated. The enlightened.

But that’s crazy: underneath the intimidating label lies a technology whose very existence is pure inclusivity. It is the next phase of the democratisation of information, knowledge and experience. Untethered at last from 2D screens and set free in 3D environments — or ‘the world’, as we tend to call it.

What happens now?

I see three options from here. Either ‘augmented reality’ follows ‘skyscraper’ in being accepted and integrated into everyday language, losing along the way the scary, veiled menace contained in the language of its name. Or it remains, lurking, looming, leering and generally getting in the way of the thing so many of us want, which is widespread normalisation and mass uptake of this thing we call AR.

Or we find a better alternative.

I can live with the first, I pray we avoid the second, but my vote is for the third.

I’ve mentioned before that ‘digital reality’ — as a complementary partner to ‘physical reality’ — has some appeal. It doesn’t distinguish between AR and VR, but that distinction is starting to lose its relevance anyway. If I step through a portal in AR into a fully virtual environment does it become VR? If there’s a hole in a VR environment than allows a glimpse of a user’s surroundings is it AR? Frankly: who cares?!

Digital reality: Welcoming, inclusive and democratic

Today, I would argue that ‘augmented reality’ doesn’t mean what we want it to. We need something welcoming, inclusive and democratic, just like the technology itself. And AR, right now, doesn’t do that job.

Mass uptake of immersive technologies is agreed by most to be inevitable; it’s a question of when, not if. But for that to happen, the barriers we have almost wilfully erected around the technology have to be pulled down. And what better place to start than with the words we use to describe it.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Alex is Chief Strategy Officer at Arcade. Contact him on alex@arcade.ltd.

Do you like wearing glasses? Soon you’ll have no choice…

Man wearing Nreal glasses

Do you like wearing glasses?

You may already wear them. You may occasionally wear them, like sunglasses or reading glasses. Or, like me, you may no longer wear them.

I wore prescription glasses for a few years but never got on with them. I didn’t like how they felt. I was forever forgetting them. I was worried about losing or breaking them. If I was hot they would keep sliding down my nose. I tried contact lenses, which were better but also caused irritation and discomfort, and were a hassle. So in the end I went for laser eye surgery and never looked back.

Man Wearing Spectacles That Are Too Tight
Some people find wearing glasses uncomfortable

But as someone working in the immersive technology space, I have long been aware that my glasses-free lifestyle may be under threat. Amongst technologists there is a near-universal vision for the future that positions glasses as the centrepiece of immersive living, itself now seen as an inevitability rather than a prediction.

Abstract Swirly Pattern

(For more on that, see Kevin Kelly’s must-read primer on the ‘Mirrorworld’ in WIRED Magazine: https://www.wired.com/story/mirrorworld-ar-next-big-tech-platform/)

The ‘wearables’ arms race has been underway for many years, and the majority is focused on glasses — or at least objects you can wear on your head. Augmented reality is, surprisingly for many, a decades-old concept, with mid-late 20th century AR hardware almost exclusively taking the form of unsexily-monikered ‘Head Mounted Displays’.

Then came the smartphone with its evolving array of cameras, and the focus shifted, at least in the short-term. The industry now had a viable means of delivering AR experiences that was free of many of the issues dogging wearables — some technical such as field-of-view, some aesthetic (the primary stumbling block for Google Glass), some commercial (a Magic Leap One headset starts at well over $2000), but mostly about distribution; there are 3.3 BILLION smartphones in the world (at the last count) not including AR-enabled tablets and other devices.

Evolution of AR. Clockwise from top left: Ivan Sutherland’s ‘Sword of Damocles’, 1968; Google Glass, 2013; Pokemon GO, 2016; Magic Leap One, 2018

Smartphones remain the most democratic and effective hardware for AR, but are seen as a stepping stone in the natural evolution of Kelly’s ‘Mirrorworld’; the best we have today, but edging ever closer to obsolescence once AR glasses reach maturity and take over.

So how long have we got before it’s glasses all the way?

The indications are that it’s not far away. Every digital expo puts its immersive wearables front-and-centre, as a vision of the tantalisingly-near future. Magic Leap, Microsoft’s HoloLens and even Google Glass are aimed primarily at the enterprise landscape from warehouses to operating theatres to battlefields, where looks aren’t as important as function. NorthVuzixNrealBoseAmazonSnap and many others are exploring a more fashion-led, consumer-focused approach.

AR x Fasion. Clockwise from top left: Nreal Light, Vuzix Blade, North Focals, Bose AR

But the biggest excitement is continuing to build around Apple’s long-anticipated AR glasses launch (latest best guess: sometime next year). The theory is that if Apple does what Apple always does (come late to market but blow everyone else away with unassailable form AND function), then that will be the tipping point: a ‘normalised’ lifestyle choice that opens up mass, globalised access to immersive living.

As someone working in immersive technology this is incredibly exciting. As someone who has gone to relatively extreme lengths to avoid wearing glasses (actual lasers shooting into my eyeballs), I am left wondering if I’m the only one with a mild sense of unease as we move towards a world where we all have to wear them in order to be a part of modern society, or if others feel it too?

Either way, it’s coming. So we’d better get used to it.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Alex is Chief Strategy Officer at Arcade. Contact him on alex@arcade.ltd.

Digital Reality: Welcome to the new normal?

Girl Playing Wizards Unite

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with names like ‘augmented reality’, ‘virtual reality’, ‘immersive technology’ and the like. They sound exactly what they are: dreamed up by technology geeks, inspired by science fiction, designed to sound futuristic and literally unbelievable. The result is a lexicon that makes some salivate – you know who you are – but puts many others to sleep. Some in my industry will find this hard to believe, but this type of language, for some, is eye-rollingly dull, off-putting and maybe even a bit intimidating. “This isn’t for you” is the perceived message – in most cases the very opposite of what it is trying to achieve.

So I, for one, am delighted by recent developments where the tech is being relegated to its rightful place in the narrative – i.e. almost invisible. The tech industry often gets a bit carried away and forgets that the experience is king, not the technology.

Google to the fore

Google is leading the way, first with the introduction of its 3D search functionality. Without any big fanfare, it has added a ‘View in 3D’ option to its mobile search. No app download, an incredibly simple interface and within seconds you can be face to face with a giant panda, amongst many other animals (the range of 3D objects is due to expand dramatically). There is still an ‘AR’ tab, but it is a pleasantly understated presence. The result is an experience that makes it seem as if occupying the same physical space as a digital giant panda were the most normal thing in the world – which, as it turns out, it sort of is.

They followed up by announcing that AR functionality is being embedded directly into YouTube, so users can seamlessly engage with content they are watching, such as trying on cosmetics during a YouTube tutorial. Early screenshots show that the focus is on the experience – ‘AR’ is nowhere to be seen.

And Google’s good work is set to be compounded by the arrival of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the latest ‘planet-scale’ offering from Niantic (by absolutely no coincidence at all, an ex-Google company). Niantic’s monster hit, Pokemon GO, is often cited as the game that introduced AR to the mainstream but, as anyone who’s played it knows, the AR elements are far from integral to the gameplay. Harry Potter appears to be different – AR-driven gaming is fundamental. But like the Google examples above, the important bit is the experience and how good it is, not how ‘AR’ it is.


A recent Deloitte report on immersive storytelling uses the phrase ‘digital reality’ to describe immersive experiences, as distinct from ‘physical reality’. I like it. It might only be a small nuance to some, but the world is already so familiar with the notion of ‘digital’ – and a sense of familiarity is exactly what the immersive tech industry needs from the audiences it seeks to engage.

It seems to me that we are gradually realising the truth: AR and other immersive tech are simply new creative tools that we can use to solve old creative challenges. Incredible, mind-blowing tools, but still just tools. Tools for digital reality. How very normal.

Google AR Panda
Hello, Panda
MAC Cosmetics Try On App
MAC Cosmetics 'Try On', coming this summer. Image: Google
Harry Potter Wizards Unite
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite by Niantic

When it comes to immersive, get your strategy right and the rest will follow

Right now, one thing immersive technology tends to do pretty well is make headlines. It’s new, different, unusual – a shiny plaything for marketing departments, artists and tech geeks to mess about with, creating content and experiences designed to make editors see clickbait and readers obligingly click. But where’s the depth?

The last couple of days alone have seen the iconic Marina Abramović’s MR-enhanced The Life exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries dismissed by at least one prominent art critic as a pointless perversion that hurts your eyes in a one-star review, and, separately, Magic Leap offer an AR experience for a very small portion of the crowd at a London Fashion Week show. The ten lucky (?) punters got to experience – well, what really? A bit of distracting CGI fluff hovering above the catwalk? None of this is to denigrate the technical excellence of either Tin Drum or REWIND, respectively, but to ask the key question: why?

Pioneers, in technology and elsewhere, are duty-bound to applaud innovative exploration of any kind. But we have to ask at what point the experiment is ready to emerge from the lab – at the moment much of this just feels too early, and risks fixing in people’s minds a perception of immersive technology as nothing more than peripheral gimmickry. The reason is because too many immersive experiences fail to answer the ‘why?’ question with much more than ‘because we can’. 

Gerrit Jacob, London Fashion Week

As with all work in the commercially-driven creative industries, immersive tech must, to borrow Simon Sinek’s oft-repeated mantra, start with whyWhy are we doing this? Why does the world need it? Why us? Why here? Why now? Why in this way, rather than any other? Only with those questions clearly and satisfactorily answered can you create an immersive experience that goes deeper than an eye-catching headline. 

Get your strategy right, and the rest will follow – headlines and all.

The magic window in your pocket

Abstract universe silhouette showing kids imagination

Imagination is one of humankind’s most powerful tools. We’ve all experienced those moments when your imagination has been sparked into life – by a book, a game, a song, a conversation, even a word – and your mind is suddenly full of ideas, images, sounds, people or places that weren’t there a minute before. Your mind’s eye takes over, and makes things that only exist in your imagination feel as real – maybe even more real – than the world around you.

Technology, and the content it serves to us, are sometimes accused of being the enemy of imagination. They do all the imagining for us; they dumb everything down; they show rather than inspire. We watch, and we move on. When something takes root in our imagination, we take it with us through our day – but so much content is instantly disposable precisely because it shows too much.

At its best, however, technology can open new windows onto our world that simply weren’t accessible before. By giving us just a glimpse, it can make us believe in things that are invisible, and spark our imagination in new and incredibly powerful ways.

If you want to see this in action, simply introduce a child to Pokémon GO and watch as they discover a new world that exists in the space around them. Once they see a Charmander, Drowzee or Rhyhorn in their house, on their street or in their local park, their imagination takes over. The phone is where it starts, but once it goes away the idea that a Pikachu could be around every corner, or sitting, right now, in their classroom, has become their thrilling new reality.

Phone showing Pokemon Go

This is the power of imagination laid bare, and it’s a beautiful thing, sparked into life by the combination of geolocation and augmented reality. Our phones stop being merely screens, distracting us from the world around us, and become magic windows onto hidden worlds.

Used like this, technology is the enabler of imagination, not its enemy. In the face of justified concerns about excess screentime, we have to ensure that technology is a positive, healthy addition to modern life – and this is exactly how we do it. Getting people out into the world, making phones as unobtrusive as possible – things we look through, not at – and helping us and our children be more creative, not less.

Niantic, the developers of Pokémon GO, work on the principle that “when the digital world and reality come together, something magical happens.” They deserve great credit, not just for creating a great game, loved by millions around the globe, but for the way it fires our imagination so vividly.

Like them, we are creating experiences that use technology to get people moving, coming together to connect with the world around them. Technology at its very best. Just imagine that.

5 principles for responsible AR to address screen time phobia

Augmented reality and the great screen debate

Screen time. We hear a lot about it, almost exclusively in the context of how best to limit it. A small but growing number of resorts, restaurants and other visitor destinations are making the news for offering incentives to customers who lock their phones away, more and more apps are designed to help us (and our kids) spend more time screen-free, and Apple has even launched a built-in screen time limiter with iOS 12. All of which throws more fuel onto the good tech / bad tech fire – and the debate continues to rage.

As practitioners in augmented reality, we are challenged regularly about mobile screen time by concerned clients: “but I want my kids to use screens less, not more” or, “won’t this just make people walk around with their screens in front of their face all the time?”

These are fair challenges, and the immersive technology industry – especially those of us focusing on the mobile side of things – needs to take them seriously. It’s not enough to wave them away with platitudes about how engaging, entertaining and rewarding the experiences are. The truth is, in a world of mounting concern about digital addiction and the antisocial behaviours mobile devices can foster, it doesn’t matter how great an immersive experience is; if it means promoting more time glued to our screens we are only going to encounter more resistance.

Instead, we have to play our part in reassuring society that the innovative, engaging experiences we create have a positive impact on how we engage with the screens in our pockets. Responsible, socially-aware design and development is key, which is why we at Arcade believe in a set of principles that help us achieve just that:

Windows, not screens

To us, your device is a magic window onto an invisible world. The content is not in your phone, it is in the physical environment beyond your phone. Our experiences are designed to make the device as unobtrusive as possible – something to be looked through, not at.

Heads up

Most mobile content is viewed ‘head-down’ – neck and eyes extended downwards, device pointing towards the floor. Our augmented experiences raise the gaze and reacquaint you with the world around you, at eye-level.

Put it away

We design narrative-led, connected experiences that create a virtuous circle of engagement between the physical and digital worlds, which don’t rely on your device throughout. A specific location triggers a digital experience and, when it is complete, your phone goes away again until you reach the next one.

Healthier habits

Mobile usage is not created equal. Immersive experiences like ours are designed to positively shift people’s usage patterns, substituting those that isolate them from the physical world to those which meaningfully engage them in it.

Primacy of place

Lastly, Arcade was founded on a fundamental belief in the importance of place in the digital age; augmented reality is simply the tool we use to foster a deeper connection with, and appreciation of, the world around us. The physical environment drives the technology, not the other way around.

By adhering to these principles, we at Arcade – and the immersive tech industry as a whole – can respond to the challenges that are coming our way with confidence and conviction, that locking phones away isn’t the answer; making them part of our healthy engagement with the world around us is the key.

#augmentedreality #screentime #playableplaces #arcade

Ready Visitor One….? Why it’s time to say goodbye to the ‘visitor’​

Ready Player One Film Poster
As a part of the Commonwealth Games that took place in Queensland earlier this year, the legacy group launched an initiative called ‘Be My Guest‘. Its aim was to positively shift the mindset of the local tourism industry in terms of the way it consciously and sub-consciously treated its consumers.
Gold Coast 2018 Banner

Referring to standard industry monikers such as ‘passenger’, ‘visitor’, ‘customer’ or ‘tourist’, it points out that, “from these definitions, people will be treated with varying degrees of personal care, according to the way they are viewed.” They go on to encourage every host to consider their audiences as ‘guests’ – because we are taught from a young age that guests are special, to be afforded special privileges and treated exceptionally well.

It is undoubtedly true that the names we use for groups of people have an impact on our behaviours towards them, and that ‘guest’ cues many positive attitudes that ‘visitor’, for example, does not. But, thinking of visitor attractions specifically, does it go far enough?

In order to continue to thrive and grow, museums, galleries and heritage sites are having to engage increasingly tech-savvy audiences whose expectations of the ‘IRL‘ experiences they choose are rising every year. Despite best efforts, traditional approaches to audience engagement, curation, interpretation and exhibition planning risk falling short with experiences that remain static, flat, linear and impersonal, and invite audiences to be little more than passive observers. That treat them as visitors, the same way they always have.

The ‘Be My Guest’ initiative defines a visitor as “One who visits a place or person, socially/as a tourist; is not permanent, does not belong to the area; a passer-by; not local.

It is becoming clear that, as an attitude towards our audiences, this simply isn’t good enough if we are to meet their rising demands. They – we – live in an experience economy characterised by increasingly blurred lines between the physical and digital worlds, where we carry supercomputers in our pockets that keep us topped up on entertainment-fuelled dopamine every few minutes. As a result, our expectations of everything we do and everywhere we go are changing. We want to be active participants, feel immersed and part of the experience and, most importantly, have fun.

Which means we don’t want to be visitors. Or even guests.

We want to be players.

‘Play’ should not be mistaken for frivolity – it is a fundamental, even profound motivation, and is being given a prominence in culture like never before, fuelled in large part by technology.

If we stop thinking of the people turning up at our sites as ‘visitors’ and start seeing them as ‘players’, we will start to build experiences with more of the characteristics of games: competition, challenge and reward. This is the interactivity and dynamism we crave; by making places playable, and designing them for players, not just guests or visitors, we can equip attractions to reassert their relevance in the digital era.

Visitor attractions: it’s time to say goodbye to the visitors, and hello to the players.

Kids using SEA LIFE Junior Ranger AR App

What on earth is Arcade? A perspective from our new CSO, Alex Book

Alex Book in Arcade Office

A few months ago, of my own free will and being of sound mind (or as sound as it ever was), I handed in my notice as Strategy Director at one of the world’s pre-eminent branding agencies, to join what is, essentially, an augmented reality start-up.

Except it’s not really an augmented reality start-up. Or at least, that’s not why we’re doing it. Instead, Arcade is a collaboration of like-minds with complementary expertise who share a vision of reconnecting people and places through play. Immersive tech – and augmented reality in particular – is simply the perfect medium to achieve it.

When Jon en Simon first shared this with me, I found it irresistible. Let me briefly explain why.

The reason I first got into branding was an article by the irreplaceable Wally Olins on the then-nascent discipline of place branding. In it, he talked about the importance of good branding (as opposed to logo design) as one of the most important tools in enabling places to tell their stories and become the places they wanted to be. I’ve been fortunate to work on a variety of place brands and other visitor / tourism categories and, through Arcade, I now get to come at this from a whole new angle.

And the timing couldn’t be better.

Places – by which we mean cultural institutions, heritage sites and other visitor attractions – are under threat. Report after report highlights that visitors (i.e. people like you and me), increasingly spoilt by being able to carry an entire universe of information and entertainment around in our pockets, are demanding more from the places we visit. Blinded by the screens in front of us, we stop paying attention to the beauty and fascination of the physical spaces around us. They fade into the background and lose their distinctiveness – their sense of place.

We at Arcade want to change that. Not by forcing people to put their phones away; quite the opposite. We want to give these magical machines a positive role in reawakening us to these incredible places and the wonders within. We want to turn them into windows that reveal hidden worlds, make walls talk and give places a whole new way to capture our imaginations. We want them to guide us, challenge us, entertain us and sweep us seamlessly from one experience to the next.

In short, we want them to make places playable.

We augment reality to make places playable

This is what we’re all about. We augment reality to make places playable. Because by becoming a Playable Place™, public cultural spaces can reassert themselves in this booming, digital-led experience economy, and re-introduce us to their spirit. Their soul.

Their sense of place.

So that’s who we are, that’s why I’m here, and if you share my excitement about the possibilities of Playable Places™  give me a call.