augmented reality

The word ‘augment’ derives from the Latin augēre, which means to increase.

‘Augment’ appears twice in the Oxford English Dictionary. First, augment is a noun meaning an ‘increase’ or ‘extension’. Second, augment is a verb meaning ‘to make greater in size, number, amount, degree’ or ‘to increase, enlarge, extend’.

Modern definitions of ‘augmented reality’ tend to describe only the most recent technological advancements in the field, utilizing the relatively new invention of the computer and other digital information systems. Augmented reality is also said to be related to the more general concept of mediated reality, one that calls for a perspective of reality that is modified by a computer and digital information. Augmented reality thus means a perception of reality that has been enhanced through computer generated inputs and other digital information.

If one were to imagine a spectrum between virtual reality and physical reality, augmented reality would fall somewhere in between. Augmented reality never goes as far as virtual reality to suggest a complete replacement of physical reality with virtual simulation, but instead forces a synthesis between physical and digital information. This synthesis is one that has a necessary foundation in physical reality, but is enhanced by information technologies. The result is an augmentation of perspective, and a mediation of experience. The eventual goal of augmented reality technology is to fully and seamlessly incorporate digital information into our everyday environment, creating attractive utility and increased depth of awareness.

The modern buzz surrounding augmented reality is inspired by the emergent technologies and software that have turned augmented reality into a cutting-edge, technological phenomenon. GPS technologies have transformed the map into a digital and interactive media. Using digital displays, sensors, and satellites, a GPS can represent the user’s physical location on a digital map. Other technologies, such as computer vision and object recognition, have allowed augmented reality technology to become more popular and advanced. Computer vision is somewhat self-explanatory – researchers and engineers design computers that attempt to emulate the human eye in image comprehension and the understanding of symbolic information. Together with object recognition, computers can identify objects in an image or video and analyze and understand them in the way humans use eyes to discern objects in the environment. Another important development in the augmented reality field is the seemingly ubiquitous presence of smart phones in our daily lives. Smartphones are already mobile computers with cameras and sensors capable of supporting augmented reality programs like GPS software and apps.

The applications of this technology are just being realized. In commerce, augmented reality technologies can change the way consumers engage with and deliberate over a product. Augmented reality technologies recognize scanned images of products and provide more information and perspectives of the product in question. In gaming, augmented reality can allow a virtual game on a smartphone or tablet to interact with the real world environment, leading to games that take place on the players’ desk or tabletop. In television, augmented reality is already being used in sports telecasting. Football telecasts have lines and markers projected onto the field to assist the viewers’ understanding of the game.

An example of augmented reality technology in development is Project Glass, an effort by Google to create a wearable, glasses-like augmented reality technology. Google Glass allows its wearers to experience the world as they world normally, while simultaneously providing them with instant access to digital information such as weather forecasts, traffic reports, personal video, text messages, etcetera. The glasses design allows for digital information to be easily integrated into a user’s perception of reality by literally inserting a screen between the user’s eye and the real world. By combining some of the existing applications of augmented reality technology with a comfortable and wearable computer system, Google has created a device that completely mediates and augments a user’s experience with reality.

A key goal of augmented reality research is to allow the interaction of digital information and physical reality with little to no physical barrier to this interaction; no unwieldy apparatus or cumbersome system standing in the way of a user and the environment. Thus, as augmented reality has developed, the technological systems and apparatuses used are becoming more and more discreet. Augmented reality has humble beginnings, where enthusiasts would literally strap conventional computers and displays to their faces to achieve an augmented perspective. Now, through technological progress and breakthrough, augmented reality technology can be a ring or a necklace. Currently, military research is attempting to manufacture contact lenses with tiny embedded displays.

The modern study augmented reality and invention of augmented reality technology puts heavy emphasis on digital information. Most modern augmented reality technologies utilize emergent computer processors, digital displays, sensors and input devices to enhance the user’s perception of reality. However, augmented reality is not confined to just digital augmentation, but also includes analog means of augmentation. Simple eyeglasses are a technology for augmenting a person’s perspective, and even older augments can be as simple as ink and parchment. Ancient cartography is an apt and interesting example of early attempts at augmentation. Both eyeglasses and maps mediate users’ experience with their physical environment and are thus both a kind of medium. Eyeglasses grant the user an enhanced perception through the augment of corrective lenses. Maps grant the user an enhanced perspective through the augment of a detailed and accurate portrayal of their larger geographic surroundings. Both of these technologies are modest and simple, but both can be appropriately defined as augmented reality alongside Google Glass and GPS technology.

Implicit in the growing field of augmented reality technology are Marshall McLuhan’s notions of media and sensory extension in the age of electricity. “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace…” (McLuhan 2). When McLuhan speaks of extensions of the human nervous system, he means that which allows our human senses to perform beyond their original capabilities. He is speaking of a central nervous system that has been augmented. Augmented reality technologies are designed to extend our senses. The way computer vision and object recognition technologies are designed to emulate the human eye is evidence of how new technology is attempting to aid in the processing of sensory information. The visual information one gathers from browsing a retail shelf can now be extended further. Suddenly information beyond our immediate senses is made available, like how an item looks without packaging, or maybe some different customization options. Again, using analog means of augmentation yields the same McLuhan-esque extension. Both eyeglasses and the maps are extensions of the human eye, allowing us to see further distances and better understand our surroundings. In fact, McLuhan’s concept of extension could be described instead as a concept of augmentation.

Augmented reality technology, in becoming an extension of our physical bodies, also causes an “amputation”, or a simultaneous degradation of a bodily function as another is extended. According to McLuhan, for each extension, there is an amputation. If one considers a car as an extension of the feet, allowing man to travel more quickly and across longer distances, than a resulting amputation is the degradation of man’s ability to use feet. In a society designed around the existence of cars, a man without a car will find that his feet alone are insufficient to accomplish simple tasks like going to the grocery store or going to work. Thus, if we consider augment reality technology in McLuhan’s terms, the extension of perspective that augmented reality provides also causes the degradation, or amputation, of our local sensorium. For example, GPS technologies have revolutionized navigation, making traveling to a completely new location as easy as searching an address in a computer. This helpful technology, however, has impeded human’s natural development of navigation skills. New generations that have grown up in the existence of this technology will never have to worry about developing navigation skills and more advanced spatial reasoning as long as they can rely on GPS technologies. In this way, GPS technology has extended human perspective by allowing more complex travel, but has also caused the amputation of innate human skills of navigation and spatial reasoning.

Freidrich Kittler, when considering the advent of optical fiber networks, spoke ominously of the future of digital media. “People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium…a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of a medium.” (Kittler 2). This concept is also implicit in the advent of augmented reality technology that attempts to seamlessly blend digital media into our perception of reality. Digitally augmented perception relies on the homogeneous digital linkage of media that Kittler predicted. The computer display in a pair of Google Glasses can as easily receive and display a text message as it can summon a recorded video or song. Print, video, and sound media all now operate in the same channel. As augmented reality technology continues to grow and advance alongside the digitization of media, these digital media will become so immediately available to us that perhaps there will eventually be no perspective of reality that is un-augmented. This acceleration of extension made possible through both digital media and augmented reality technologies will perhaps also result in an acceleration of amputation. As we become more reliant of digital media and augmented reality technology, perhaps our ability to function without such tools will be permanently and irreparably damaged. As McLuhan states, as humanity becomes “hypnotized by the amputation and extension of [our] own beings in a new technical form,” will the benefits of our new augmented perspective be great enough to counteract the simultaneous amputations?

— Avery LaFlamme


Oxford English Dictionary, 2014

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Kittler, Freidrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

Manjoo, Farhad. “You Will Want Google Goggles” 2012, MIT Technology Review

Metz, Rachel. “Augmented Reality, Wrapped Around Your Finger” 2012, MIT Technology Review

Boutin, Paul. “A New Reality” 2011, MIT Technology Review

Anthony, Sebastian. “US military developing multi-focus augmented reality contact lenses” ExtremeTech, 13 April 2012.

MacEachren, Alan M. How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design