Virtual and Augmented Realities

The old metaphor of the internet as a "place", or cyberspace, comes from science fiction notions of a virtual reality that is separate from the real one. When we enter cyberspace, as imagined through cumbersome means like virtual reality goggles, haptic feedback devices, or more typically and coarsely through keyboard, mice, and computer screens, we leave our current reality and enter into a place other than the one we normally inhabit. This virtual travel comes with costs akin to real world travel: load times, fidelity degradation, jet lag.

By contrast the new metaphor of the mobile internet, the social internet, the distributed internet, is not virtual reality or cyberspace, but rather augmented reality. One need not leave the real world any longer to experience the powerful forces of technology applied to daily life, one need only look down at a mobile device, look through a set of reality enhancing glasses, or connect to one's data streams though an internet ready kiosk. One doesn't go to Facebook, one checks Facebook, checks into a real place with Foursquare, orders a cab with Uber, logs the drinking of a beer with Untappd, Tweets, (Google) Hangs out, and performs all sorts of other tasks and interactions through the use of Internet enabled technologies without ever going "there".

Social technologies like phreaker "party" lines, IRC chat "rooms", and Second-Life virtual "properties" are all places that require a buy-in akin to make believe or fantasy role-playing for the experience to be of value. This transaction cost has been largely eliminated by higher and higher fidelity communication methods (audio, video, collaboration tools), and with it the need for "place-ness" as a crutch to the believeability of the social experience. With today's technology, users feel comfortable being in the place they are in while experiencing a social interaction with someone 2000 miles away. They can see them on the screen, they receive constant SMS updates from them on their phone, they watch them typing into a shared Google Doc. The social interaction is seamless without the need for the metaphor of physical proximity, without the need for place.

This trend away from virtual reality and towards augmented reality is inexorable, even for those of us who are not leading on the cutting edge of technologies that will draw it closer. Technologists that can grab hold of this metaphor now will be better prepared for it's ubiquity in the near term.

For further reading on this topic, pick up literally anything ever written by William Gibson.