Thursday, February 6, 2014

Racing Ourselves To The Rift

What if every day when you went out jogging you got to compete with virtual versions of yourself running the same course on previous days?  This idea is familiar to anyone who has played Mario Kart, where you can race against "ghosts" of your previous runs on the same track.  Well a new Google Glass project is bringing something similar into the real world.

Google Glass is basically a tiny smartphone mounted on a pair of glasses, meaning that as you around you can see images transposed over reality.  You can display almost anything on the screen, videos, text, you can check facebook or email, as well as run programs that interact with the world around you.  The virtual jogging program known as Race Yourself is a project being developed that lets you jog against virtual avatars of your previous runs on a course, you can learn more about this project here:

So that's cool, but what else could Google Glass be used for?  The first step is to recognize that despite the strange looking nature of the device, it represents a significant augmentation to the user and carries the potential to grant a number of powerful abilities.  The most obvious of these is access to vast amounts of information displayed over your vision, programs could be created and personalized to display information pertaining to events around you in a vast variety of ways.  One of the most basic uses is to identify people around you, anytime you see a someone, the Google Glass displays whether you know them or not, and who they are if you do.

The variety of uses for this device is infinite, especially when you think about individuals modifying and combining it with other systems to accomplish specific tasks.  The applications for industry, medicine, communication, navigation, diplomacy ect are enormous, but mainly they reflect one type of improvement:  Total access to information and computation displayed over top of and incorporating elements into the situation in which it is being used.

By now you have probably started thinking about how Google Glass could be abused, this is precisely the concern for many people, imagine if someone wearing a Google Glass sees you, the computer can match your identity to a facebook account and display all sort of information on you, this means that anonymity could really disappear in person, which is a strange and scary thought.  Another side of the coin is the risk of the Glass being electronically compromised, because of the technological paradigm of today, the intelligence agencies will try to either compromise the Google Glass from within Google or hack it from outside if the corporation refuses to provide access.  This means everything you see with the glasses is being recorded by the intelligence services, also the compromised device is easily attacked by blackhat hackers, so using Google Glass with this insecure technological paradigm could be dangerous from a number of angles.

But ultimately if humanity can create a secure platform, something like Google Glass can become safer for people to use, this will create an environment more open to the idea of reality augmentation.  But what about entirely virtual reality?  Does technology exists today that creates entirely virtual worlds using an interface similar to the Google Glass?

The answer as you may know is yes, the object in question is know as Oculus Rift, a virtual reality project that grew out of kick starter and is expected to come on the market from 2014-2015.  It is a completely immersive headset that attaches to your face and displays images on a screen and sound through headphones, you can use it to play all sorts of computer games, many of which are basically virtual worlds already.  This is an incredible step twords the emergence of true virtual reality, but how far can this really go?

The answer may be to plug directly into the brain, we have already seen many direct brain to computer connections taking place in people with spinal injuries, how long before healthy people start volunteering to have plugs in their heads to exercise complete control inside virtual reality, or to interface with elements of external reality such as robots.  This brings up a lot of security concerns again, it is imperative we move to a secure platform before undertaking such measures, connecting brains directly to computers is a huge step and should be undertaken with caution.

So maybe we will all live in a future where augmentation and virtual reality are common place, what it comes down to is each person making their own individual choice about using the technology or not, as long as the right to deny augmentation for yourself exists and is respected, this technology can transition into the population in a peaceful manner.

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