A bed bug

A brave new word: augmenting reality in fiction

With the emergence of augmented reality the world has taken another step into the realms of science fiction. What can literature teach us about this new technology?

'He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes. '

At first Gregor Samsa is preoccupied with practicalities. How does he get out of bed? Can he catch the train to work on time? But it isn't long before his tastes change: he likes rotten food and wants to scurry under the sofa. Franz Kafka's short story 'Metamorphosis' (1915) shows how Gregor's perception is turned upside down when he changes overnight into a gigantic insect.

Kafka's vision in this famous story (and in most of his work) is about someone trapped in a hopeless situation. A century on, augmented reality (AR) applications have the potential to deliver a digital metamorphosis where we can change our sense of the world through overlays of computer-generated sound, video, graphics and position data. The promise is a widening of human perceptions and access to greater knowledge. But a quick trawl through literature suggests we should approach AR with our eyes wide open.

A brave new world of sensation...?

Aldous Huxley's dystopic 'Brave New World' (1931) presents one of the earliest examples of AR in 20th century fiction: the 'feelies'. These are movies that deliver touch and smell as well as pictures and sound. When people watch a 'feelie' of a couple having sex on a bearskin rug, they can feel every hair of the rug on their own bodies. Huxley's sympathies lie with the freethinking, noble savage who is the main protagonist, and wants to show the emptiness of such high-tech consumerist diversions. But, of course, Huxley never lived to see 'I'm a Celebrity Get me Out of Here'. Today, the idea of AR feelies seems almost highbrow.

A more contemporary take on AR is William Gibson's political thriller 'Spook Country' (2007), which plays with layers of reality to make points about cyber ghosts and data disinformation i.e. the gaps between what we can and cannot perceive in a wired world. Set in the here and now, the plot revolves around Locative Art, which is art you can only see if you wear 3D goggles and stand at the right GPS coordinates. One artwork shows the actor River Phoenix's dead body outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Another installation shows the author F Scott Fitzgerald having a heart attack. But the artist behind the locative creations is also smuggling data on iPod music files. What is real and what isn't and can we tell the difference?

Time to hone your 'apparition' skills

Perhaps the most technically convincing fictional account of an AR-mediated future is the mathematician and computer scientist Vernor Vinge's Hugo award-winning book 'Rainbows End' (2006). Set in 2025, people interact through computer-generated graphic overlays provided by clothing embedded with lasers and microprocessors. Phantom keyboards can be called up for typing messages or for using a search engine. Special contact lenses feed all the information directly into the person's visual field. With a shrug of their clothing, Vinge's characters can add any augmented 'view' they choose. It could be from the local police showing the type and location of recent arrests, it might be network statistics, or the wearer's own creatively enhanced 'view' based on favourite computer game.

People and machines routinely project radically altered versions of themselves to each other across the globe. These apparitions can be anything: another human, a character from a game, a cartoon monster, or even a giant insect. Skill in managing AR is shown by how well someone's apparition casts shadows and reflections or how convincingly it sits on a chair (best to avoid overlap or an odd hovering effect).

Language difficulties can be smoothed over with an application like 'Goodenuf English' in which the virtual air around a bunch of speakers is filled with translation guesstimates and picture substitutions.

Physical machines such as robots have haptic overlays to give convincing tactile-feedback to match their visual projections. As long as the machines are touched by only a few pairs of human hands at once, the haptics are fast enough to maintain the illusion, which could be anything from looking and feeling like a real book to being a large furry animal. Of course, the network infrastructure needs to be working efficiently for all of this to function.

How might augmented reality feel to those who are 'wearing'? Here's an excerpt from Vinge's book:

'The hills above them were covered with iceplant and manzanita; ahead, there was a patch of scrub oaks. What do you expect of San Diego North County in early October? At least in the real world.

'As they walked along, Juan gave a shrug and a twitch just so. That was enough cue for his Epiphany wearable. Its overlay imagery shifted into Hacek's Dangerous Knowledge world: The manzanita morphed into scaly tentacles. Now the houses that edged the canyon were large and heavily timbered, with pennants flying. High ahead was a castle.'

Sounds like fun (as is the book, which has a rather surprising ending).

A little too abstract?

Scarlett Thomas' 'The End of Mr Y' (2008) explores similar territory although the protagonist Ariel is not using any recognisable off-the-shelf technology to deliver her altered perception. Instead she has a book and a potion. Together, these transport her to the 'troposphere', an extra layer of reality made of consciousness, where people can live the thoughts of others' including those of laboratory mice. I shall say no more in case it spoils the plot.

In many respects, having one's reality boosted with overlaid knowledge from multiple sources sounds entertaining and mind-expanding – in fact, rather like reading books. Jorge Luis Borges in his selection of short stories 'Labyrinths' (1962), however, gives us some final food for thought about the nature of knowledge and information' and disinformation. 'Funes the Memorius', for instance, is a story about a man who has perfect memory and who therefore cannot think properly or reason in the abstract. It is as if he had Wikipedia wired into his brain. Funes cannot sleep because it means turning his mind off from the world. In Funes' world there are only details.

'The Library of Babel' is Borges' famous story of a library containing countless books that hold all possible knowledge. But the knowledge is not indexed. And for each book that is true and correct, there will be many that are less correct and some blatantly wrong. As our information viewpoints shift and shimmer with multiple overlays, we may begin to find the augmented reality trip equally disconcerting.

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