Digital Things Are Real: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love AR
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
— The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
Who are we, really? It’s a question mankind has wrestled with from the beginning of time, and one that’s become even more complicated with the advent of the digital world.
Think how much has changed since the early days of the Internet. Back then, our online lives were kept mostly apart from our real-world identities. The Web was where we went to escape ourselves — the place no one could know you were a dog, as New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner quipped in 1993.
Today, the boundaries between who we are online and who we are in the physical world are blurring. We spend so much of our time in online spaces that our online and offline identities and experiences have become inextricably linked with who we “really” are. And with augmented reality (AR) silently entering every facet of our life, the line between what’s real and what’s not in our personal lives is more blurred than ever.
Think about it. In the metaverse, people can own multi-million dollar real estate. They buy virtual clothing for their avatars and “phygital” enhancements — those that blend the physical and digital — for their real-world outfits. In an extension of a trend that’s been around for more than two decades, they work, socialize, and fall in love in exclusively digital spaces. They play with virtual pets and toys.
As our identities and experiences — and, increasingly, the things we possess and care about — become less tethered to the physical world, I believe an important question is arising about the nature of reality itself - at what point do we admit our digital things have become an indivisible part of our reality?
In other words, what makes digital things real?
Reality and Intersubjectivity
To find a path to an answer, we first must ask, unironically, a more fundamental question: what is reality?
There is no simple answer — and I certainly don’t claim to have the authority to make the final call — but I would like to postulate that reality consists of what we can share with others. This phenomenon is known as intersubjectivity: the process of sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences with other conscious beings, and knowing they have been shared and understood by others.
As humans, we are hard-wired to validate our perceptions by checking them with others. When we find something funny, we want others to laugh; when we smell, hear, or see something, we ask those around us if they did, too. If they don’t, we feel dislocated and the whole experience becomes disconcerting.
When the outside world stops validating our perceptions, we very quickly assume the role of outsider. We crave externally congruent perception of events: Reality is that which is intersubjective. Why, for instance, is an inside joke so rewarding? It is proof we belong — evidence of past intersubjectivity. A knowing look, a secret smile, a quiet nod of the head, and we feel connected to others by all the things we know and have experienced together.
For most of us, intersubjectivity is fundamental to reality. If we repeatedly find that our experiences are not “echoed” by others, we begin to feel isolated, or even question our own perceptions. Indeed, as recent research has shown, isolation poses a real threat to mental and physical health. It also endangers societal health — think of the “information silos” created by social media algorithms.
There’s a reason that you and your flat-earther uncle see one another as unhinged: the information you consume in your separate silos is so radically different that you’re essentially living in different realities.
So what does this have to do with augmented reality (AR)?
The potential of AR to change our lives is unlimited. But I believe if we do not consider this question of connection throughout the development process, there is a danger it could actually deepen the social fissures created by information silos. The data schisms that keep us in separate circles online could spread into other areas of life, leading to increasingly divided experiences of the world itself.
With Great Reality Comes Great Responsibility
Today, the advertisements, news, and other media that we see on our phones and computer screens can be radically different from what our neighbors see. But with AR and VR, information silos that dominate our social media algorithms can change our lived experience in much more radical, immersive ways.
The disinformation that we see on Facebook (Meta) could bleed into physical space. And, depending on your online behavior, targeted advertising could make what you see and hear vastly different from those around you, Keiichi Matsuda-style. You could be enjoying a gorgeous piece of AR art by a local creator as you walk to the corner store, while on the same route, your neighbor is subjected to sensationalized news reports warning against a wave of crime.
Your walk down the street would be radically different than your neighbor’s, and yet it would seem as “real” to you as hers is to her. If we can’t share mixed reality experiences in a meaningful way, we risk creating a world even more fragmented than the one we live in now.
Sharing Experiences in AR Can Build Connections Between People
This is why the digital universe we build in the future should be fully intersubjective, with AR fulfilling the innately human desire to share our ideas and perceptions. If we succeed in this, AR can actually create an even more connected world.
Without the ability to share what you see with others, virtual worlds can quickly become boring, unsettling, and hollow.
If I have a virtual creature jumping up and down on the table in front of me, it becomes so much more substantial (and fun) if my friends can see and interact with it too. And with technologies that allow us to touch and play with AR creations in real time, our shared AR experiences become even richer and more engaging.
Thanks to AR, I now have two happy and lively digital dogs. These puppers are so wholly real to me that I think of them as a couple of heartbeats at my feet. I can play with them, interact with them, even scratch behind their ears — and they respond to me just as if they were made of flesh and blood. And through the magic of shareable AR, my friends have bonded with them too. They make every gathering warmer and more fun. Every time we all meet, we add an extra layer to the experience of being in the same space, sharing a reality we build by our presence and our emotions.
With the right technology, we have the power to manifest shareable digital creatures, objects, toys, games, and environments wherever we are in the physical world. And we can share all we imagine with those we care about. What could be more real than that?
— By Damir First