In the last few days, I went around the city, looking for immersive experiences in extended reality. I attended the Arcadia Earth popup in New York City this Saturday, which was about showing the state of the earth through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). The installation was beautifully constructed, but at the same time, it was scary to look at. For instance, the extensive use of plastics and the damage it causes to the oceans was depicted through the installation of a chandelier of plastic bottles, with jellyfish swimming around them in AR. Similarly, some parts of the installation showed 360-degree videos in VR of the underwater life and the state of pollution at the seabed. With sea creatures living in that polluted environment, it highlighted the extent to which our simple actions of plastic use and waste disposal get prolonged in someone else’s natural habitat.
While the experience influenced me substantially, I had an interesting observation around privacy as I was in the exhibit. By the nature of an AR experience, all the visitors were on their smartphones or tablets, scanning the area for interactive experiences. This meant that people were taking pictures everywhere, even when someone was in front of them. So, as an experiment, I started taking videos of the visitors. What I noticed there was that my actions were being seen as normal because everyone else was also taking videos. This meant that I could easily invade someone’s privacy just by being in that space[i].
What’s interesting here is that our future is about to be augmented similarly. Consider Google Maps. Last month, Google launched beta versions of their maps in AR[ii]. As a person is navigating through the city, the AR feature allows them to overlay the street view with directions in front of their smartphone screen. Drawing a parallel from the Arcadia Earth experience, it’s probable that we would soon see people walking on the streets with their cameras turned on and their phones in front of them – recording everything. This creates a concerning picture of the mirrorworld, and as designers, we must create provisions to account for such vulnerabilities.
Some of the other experiences I had were around the use of VR to create playful interactions. Last night, I tried the Altspace VR app on Oculus[iii], which was building a community of VR enthusiasts, by making them convene at common spots, interact with each other’s’ avatars, and play games together. I played a game of bottle smashing with someone else who was connected to the app at the time, and we were picking up balls and throwing them at the bottles.
Such experiences hint the future of our interactions and how we would prefer a new world when ours isn’t satisfying. This brings me to the last experience I want to mention, which was on storytelling in VR using the app, Within[iv]. I saw a couple of videos like Tiny Tank, Melting Ice, and An Ordinary Day in North Korea. What struck me from the perspective of the mirrorworld was the experience I had in Tiny Tank. Inside the experience, I was acting as someone’s friend, and the two of us were playing a war-fighting game. While we were in VR, a third friend was watching us interact in the real world, disappointed that he couldn’t have regular interactions in the real world. The sight of us being immersed and unaware of what was happening around us reminded me of the recent episode of Black Mirror, Striking Vipers[v], in which the father is so immersed in VR that he misses out on the interactions[vi] he could have with his son.
The future of XR is what we would make it. This post shows a slightly dystopian outlook of it. But, there are countless practical applications and essential uses of XR, and we must be able to lean towards the positive side for mirrorworld design.
[i] I know I shouldn’t have done that because it’s not correct to breach someone’s trust like that. But I wanted to test my hypothesis of how the use of AR may impact us in the future.
[v] Even I’m surprised how often I get to quote this TV series!
[vi] I’m using the words – interactions, experiences, and conversations – multiple times in the context of XR. But it’s interesting to observe how these terms have now become synonymous to XR. I’m almost feeling repetitive using them for the real-world references.