Augmented reality (AR), the overlaying of the real world with additional data, has been a science fiction standby for decades. In the last three years, it has become a technology that is embedded in the vast majority of new smartphones, but used only sporadically in games and special purpose apps, such as IKEA’s application to show how a new piece of furniture might fit into a real room.15
Substantial amounts of money are being put into research and development for AR glasses that will allow people to see data overlaid on the world without having to run a special app and then lift their phone up to their faces. Some working prototypes, such as Microsoft Hololens, make it seem possible that affordable headsets with a minimally acceptable quality of data augmentation may be widespread within a decade.
If AR glasses successfully leave the prototype stage, fall in price, and sell widely, they represent a fundamentally different kind of interface from a smartphone. Whereas a smartphone is most frequently used to avoid having to interact with our immediate surroundings in favor of remote contact, the fundamental affordance of glasses is that they are about where the wearer is standing.
This likely bias toward data about “where I am now” opens up a range of opportunities that relate to civic engagement. The built and natural environments in which people live are the products of innumerable political and administrative choices. One of the most obvious kinds of data to overlay on AR glasses will simply be “What is that?” around objects, buildings, and places. This opens up the possibility of exposing to a large number of people information about the choices and power-related decisions that have shaped their environments. These choices tend to be invisible to everyone except the most diligent readers of local news media, but AR opens up the possibility that far more people will be exposed to far more local choices and decisions as part of their everyday lives.
The question is: How does citizen engagement change in a world in which far more citizens are simply aware of the choices made in their built and natural environments? Does engagement go up and become richer, or do people disengage because of an overwhelming volume, followed by a sense of powerlessness? And, crucially, whose answer to the question “What is that?” will people get when they look at a place or building through their AR glasses? The suppliers of these data, and the algorithms that determine what is shown, will be just as political as the regulation of the social media platforms, and possibly even more so.
15: As early as 2009, the Sunlight Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, launched an AR phone application for citizens to monitor recovery contracts in the United States, with limited uptake at the time, according to an interviewee. This was supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided stimulus for job preservation and creation, infrastructure investment, energy efficiency and science, and assistance to the unemployed. ↩