When Helen told me that she was authoring Augmented Human: How Technology is Shaping the New Reality, I volunteered (actually begged her) to let me write this foreword. At the time, I had not read a manuscript and had only an inkling of what she was going to say, but knowing Helen’s scholarly reputation and thoughtfulness, I knew that her take on the emerging technology of augmented reality and its applications in augmenting humans would be insightful, if not profound.
There have been a lot of people who have worked together to create this new medium. For many years it was looked upon as a novelty or solution looking for a problem to solve. There wasn’t enough crowd appeal to move it past the tipping point of mass adoption—this being necessary for enough investment and attention toward making AR economically viable, and thus, widespread. My qualification for writing this foreword stems from the dubious honor of being one of those so-called pioneers who suffered through the beginnings of AR technology development.
In my case the journey began 52 years ago, when as a USAF officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, I worked on designing better cockpits for fighter aircraft and other military vehicles. My job was to solve the problem of getting bandwidth to and from the pilot’s brain given the sheer complexity of the systems they needed to operate in highly stressful and dangerous environments. This problem is what motivated me to explore augmented reality approaches that might increase pilot awareness of the relationship of their aircraft and to the real world. The idea was to organize and portray information in the form of virtual images projected and superimposed over the real world via helmet worn devices. Later I extended this work to include virtual reality.
Now that AR and VR technology is finally maturing (it took longer than I had thought) my role as a tool builder is coming to an end. It is time to hand the torch to Helen and her cohort to make it do something useful. It is one thing to build a new medium but another thing to put a message in that medium. In the end, the message is more important.
As I anticipated, Dr. Papagiannis has done a splendid job in this authoritative book. It is short but packs a wallop. She has laid a foundation for us by describing what we mean by augmented reality with its various modalities, developed a taxonomy to help us categorize applications and introduced us to the content and applications (along with their pioneers). But she has gone a lot further. In connecting the dots, Helen leads us to realize that AR is not going to be business as usual. This is not about a new medium—it is about augmenting humans. It is not about separating us from experiencing the real world, as television, film and even virtual reality require, but instead, allows technology to blend with the real world, enhancing us in that total blended experience. From this perspective she shows us that AR has the power to empower, and that we need to expand our thinking (and imagination) of what this augmentation can mean to being human in the future.
When it comes to the message delivered by the AR medium, there will be many new degrees of freedom such as non-linear storytelling and alternative realities that change even the physics of experience. As Helen explains we need to throw out the old rulebook of how we understand and interact within the real world. As we embrace these new experiences and their saliencies she envisions an unleashing of discovery, creativity, imagination and what it may mean to be an augmented human in the days to come. No doubt hers is not the final word, but it is an essential and necessary touchstone as we embark on this human augmentation odyssey.
I especially appreciate Helen’s insight and sensitivity about the role of artists (or “wonderment operators” as she calls them) as a stimulus to emergence. My own experience is that there is not one community that owns this space. It is as much a place for storytellers and artists as it is for engineers and computer scientists. The experience is what we will remember and will change us. Hopefully the technology (my contribution) becomes “invisible” and doesn’t get in the way.
I take to heart Helen’s final charge at the conclusion of this book that we need to work together as a civilization to use the tools of our age to lift humanity and inspire a positive change in the world. For in the end, we must answer the question: does augmenting us make our lives better?