Virtual or augmented: Pick your reality

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How would you like your reality: virtual or augmented? You'll be choosing sides soon.

Microsoft's upcoming HoloLens headset will project 3-D models, Minecraft game spaces and computer screens into the real world around you, as real, they tease, as if they were there.

Its competitor, the Google-funded Magic Leap, brings first-person robot-blasting games and floating Rolodexes to the near future. For years, the upstart Oculus Rift has been teasing us with a virtual reality headset that replaces the real world wholesale and delivers a high-definition world you can explore and engage with.

Sony's Project Morpheus, the newcomer the Impression Pi and products and prototypes from other companies (like the thought-reading Mind Leap) are jacking into the same idea.

And, of course, the much-mocked Google Glass has retrenched. The search engine giant promises the eyeglasses with their floating data cards will be back before we know it. Finally, the venerable Second Life virtual world is, we're told, due for a re-spawn that takes advantage of the full processing power of modern computers.

But, will the real world really be replaced, re-skinned and colourfully annotated? Will we spend our days emaciated, surrounded by mouldy ramen noodle containers and lost in amped-up game worlds? Will walking down a street bring a cavalcade of offers, incoming video chats, news alerts and images? Will the real world be nothing more than the increasing disappearing base in a multilayered Photoshop document?  

Will the here and now seem as dull as a black and white TV?

I think, in some ways, we live in an augmented reality already. Directional and advertising signage augments our experiences. So do historical plaques. Our mobile devices (tablets, smartphones and wearables) let us see the spaces we walk through via a birdseye view, connect us with information and people who aren't close at hand and allow us to share our experiences with other connected friends and family a world away. Nobody has to guess about anything, anywhere, anymore. Or be alone, or bored, or unaugmented.

For now, the purely virtual world will be a private experience -- something you do by yourself, indoors. The Oculus Rift is a headset as unwieldy as blacked-out ski goggles. It's aimed at gamers and those who want a fully immersive experience for training or travel. Rift is now owned by Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg sees it as a future social tool for millions of people. And, the current, prototype version of Microsoft's HoloLens is also intended for indoor use. While you can see the real world around you, nobody's going to walk down the sidewalk looking like you're late from the downhill slalom event. But, that doesn't mean it will always be that way.

Google Glass hinted at a world where augmented reality is everywhere. But, unfortunately, it also pointed out that, experiencing it, you look like a hopeless nerd with a CSIS complex.

Personally, I'm more intrigued by an augmented reality than a fully virtual one. I'm fine with my future glasses being the equivalent of a pocket calculator for my eyes, an external prosthetic that aids memory, recall, connection and orientation. That's still a long way off. Even the most advanced augmented and virtual reality gear is not ready for prime time by a long shot. But, in five years or less, it will be.

That may mean the real world becomes just another crowded screen. But, I'd rather imagine that the here and now just takes on a whole new meaning.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Microsoft Sweden/flickr

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