On language and augmented reality
Take a look at this object. What do you see? You see a man-made object, but is it a tool or is it art? Consider and pay attention to what you actually perceive when you look at this image.
When I tell you that this is a bronze age shovel your perception changes. Now you see a handle, you see a flattened area for displacing dirt, you see an instrument for digging. By the act of speaking the word shovel I have reached into your mind and altered your perception of reality.
And if we do indeed dig deeper we find that language is the oldest form of augmented reality, if by augmented reality we mean technology that adds layers of meaning and information to your perceived world, and that it may have been with us in some form or another for as much a million years — predating even our current species.
The impulse to augment reality is one of the most foundational aspects of the human psyche. We want to label and understand, to discover and to share, and as time passes we have increasingly been shaped by our languages.
If ancient man invented the language, perhaps it is fair to say that language invented the modern man.
If you doubt how deep the effects of language reach into your perception, consider the fact that the perception of color seems to be partially dictated by your language, or that the grammatical structure of your spoken language predictably influences your political views.
In the 19th century William Gladstone stumbled upon tantalizing evidence in the written record of humanity that colors seem to evolve and appear. The older the language, the further back in history he reached, the fewer colors were mentioned in writing, starting with just simple notions of dark and light. The video essay “The Invention of Blue” is a fantastic resource if you’re interested in this idea, and fans of the band Tool might recognize the theory mentioned in the song Lateralus:
Black then white are all I see in my infancy
Red and yellow then came to be
Today, the research done on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language shows us just how impactful language truly is, and has largely validated the theory. Our language and culture shapes our perception and our personality, and it propels us on a course that will either see mankind reaching beyond its home planet or ultimately destroying it.
Part of being human is to seek and to create new perspectives, to explore the world through the eyes of others by speaking in their tongue.
The above constellation is recognizable to many, but under many different names. Some see the big dipper, where others see the plough, and others still have seen seven oxen. Kathy Sierra called this phenomenon high resolution, the idea that once you have a pattern that you can apply onto the world then you see the world through the prism of that lens. Someone that understands the rules of a sport, she explained, sees a fundamentally different game on the TV than someone lacking that conceptual framework — another instance of augmented reality.
But where our language fails to inspire or deliver we wish to reach beyond, and the technology that we today call augmented reality is humanity’s next major fantasy. As soon as we saw the first demos of AR we were hooked, because it speaks to one of the most fundamental and reliable drives that humanity has — and that is also why AR failed so spectacularly to deliver on its hype in its first decade.
Language and augmenting reality is a social activity. We want our perspectives to be shared, our labels to be used, and perception to be validated. That augmented reality has been so difficult to share and participate in has made it memetically weak — if you cannot communicate more efficiently with AR, then what is it for?
Joining a shared AR experience in Pokemon GO, for example, takes half a minute, and it requires all the participants to join at once — and even if you go through that hurdle, the precision of their AR experience is on the order of tens of centimeters. AR has been a disappointment, but we all still know in the depths of what makes us human that we want this technology.
This is why Auki Labs developed an instant calibration method, a way for AR experiences to be shared in an instant and joined spontaneously.
When our perception of reality can be shared it becomes powerful, and a tool for human advancement. Perhaps the technology we want in our souls is just around the corner.
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