Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Get set for a blend of reality and its augmented version

A third platform technology is being built and we had better get involved in its creation

Kevin Kelly, founder and “Senior Maverick" of Wired has a thought-provoking new article in last month’s edition of the magazine. He suggests that we are currently at the dawn of the third platform age, and predicts that whichever entity dominates this new platform will become the most powerful company on the planet.

According to Kelly, the first great platform technology was the World Wide Web, which digitized information and gave us the ability to harness knowledge using search. This platform came to be dominated by Google and very quickly transformed the way we learned. The second was social media, which digitized people and their relationships with each other, allowing algorithms to understand human behaviour. This platform is dominated by Facebook and WeChat and has changed the way society interacts. Kelly believes that the next great platform will digitize the rest of the world, making all things and places in the world around us machine-readable.

The first step towards the creation of this new platform is building a distributed all-seeing network comprising a number of tiny cameras that are constantly capturing visual information about the world around us and uploading it onto the cloud. Since every image that is captured in this manner will be tagged with information about where it was taken, what it was about and other associated data, once enough visual information is aggregated in the cloud, it will become possible for us to build a multi-dimensional digital representation of the world around us that maps perfectly onto the real world. Once that happens, it will be possible to interact with the world in ways that we cannot imagine.

Much of this interaction will take place through the connected, always-on glasses that we will wear all the time, which will allow us to interact digitally with the inanimate objects around us. All we will need to do is look at an object to get the information we need about it displayed inside our glasses. Information about what the object is, where it came from, what it can be used for and how, will appear before our eyes as soon as it falls within our field of view.

If we combine this technology with augmented reality, the possibilities will be truly limitless. The glasses we wear—which will by then be able to recognize every single physical object in the world around us—will be capable of superimposing onto it hyper-realistic three dimensional pseudo-objects indistinguishable from the real world they occupy. When that happens, we will occupy a world comprising real and virtual objects, and will not be able to tell one from the other.

This will offer us novel ways to educate and entertain ourselves. History will come alive whenever we visit historical sites as our glasses will re-create the incidents in which these monuments feature, by projecting a hyper-realistic overlay on top of the physical world. We will be able to transform an ordinary pencil into Harry Potter’s wand or any other object in whichever fictional world we are immersing ourselves in.

As fantastical as this might sound, we already have the technology to achieve everything described above. Commercially viable virtual and augmented reality headsets are already available and if they seem bulky and inconvenient, we just need to think back at how cumbersome early mobile phones were. We already have cameras in virtually everything—from our phones, to our cars to the digital assistants in our homes—and already store all the images we capture in the cloud. All we need is to build the platform that ties it all together.

There is much talk about how the next billion is going to come online. If the platform described above is actually going to be as ubiquitous as predicted, it’s likely that digital natives of tomorrow will plug directly into it. They will have no use for screens as data will be served to them through their connected classes, directly overlaid on their world. Keyboards, touchpads and the variety of other input devices we use today will be as archaic to them as punchcards are to us. Instead, they will converse naturally with digital assistants who will understand them far better than Siri or Alexa can today. They will interact with the world in a manner that is alien to us today, but that will be the only way they know.

Both of the two previous platforms were developed almost entirely in the US. As a result, US corporations exert such deep and pervasive control over digital information and social media that even today, governments around the world are struggling to wrest back control of data that pertains to them. If we don’t want history to repeat itself, we will need to ensure that we get in at the very beginning of the development of the next big platform and be a significant part in the creation of the building blocks of that new technology.

This will require us to actively encourage the development of the standards on which this next generation platform will function. At the very least, this will mean investing in the indigenization of AI so that the fields of computer vision and natural language processing develop in a manner that best addresses the needs of our domestic consumers. More importantly, we will need to incentivize the digitization of our world so that when the “Mirrorworld" that Kevin Kelly has so articulately described comes to be, we will not, once again, be relegated to playing catch up.

Rahul Matthan is partner at Trilegal and author of ‘Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Driven Future’

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