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Back on New Year’s Day, I wrote a piece for VentureBeat predicting 2023 as the year of mixed reality. On Monday of next week, the world will see why I still believe this is true. That’s the day Apple is expected to unveil its long-awaited mixed reality headset, a product rumored to be called the “Reality Pro” and certain to set the standard for immersive experiences.
This is a big deal.
In fact, I predict that June 5, 2023, will go down in history as the first day of our augmented future — a time when the boundaries between the real world and the digital world start to evaporate from our lives. That’s the goal of mixed reality: To unleash virtual experiences that are merged with our real surroundings, embellishing and enhancing our daily life. With the added power of generative AI, the physical world will quickly become a magical place filled with creative, artistic and informative content that materializes everywhere we go. This is the future of computing.
Opening the door to the augmented future
Of course, these early devices will be too expensive and bulky for widespread use by the general public, but that’s not the point. Apple’s goal, I assume, is to open the door to our augmented future and seed developers with quality hardware so they can prepare for consumer devices that follow. And yes, I am confident that smaller and lower-cost glasses will follow, not just from Apple but from many of the largest companies in the world.
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Earlier this year, Google, Samsung and Qualcomm announced a partnership to create a mixed-reality platform built on Android. And just last month, Google announced Geospatial Creator, an impressive tool for creating mixed reality content. And two weeks ago, it was reported that Meta is in licensing discussions with Magic Leap to accelerate their efforts to bring next-gen mixed reality devices to market.
Yes, our augmented future is coming.
Rivaling the mobile phone
In fact, I believe mixed reality eyewear could rival the mobile phone by 2030 as the tool for accessing our digital lives. Assuming that stylish, lightweight glasses are launched to consumers in 2025, this would mean widespread adoption over the following five years.
Is this possible? As context, the iPhone was launched in 2007, and within six years, the number of shipping smartphones overtook flip phones despite the significantly higher cost. Smartphone adoption was driven by users who felt they were increasingly missing out on useful content. The same dynamic could drive mixed reality eyewear, for without these devices, users will be blind to a wealth of information and experiences throughout our world.
For me, this is both exciting and terrifying. It’s exciting because I’ve been waiting for a very long time. Thirty years ago, I developed the first mixed reality system at Air Force Research Laboratory, enabling users to interact simultaneously with the real and the virtual. Called the Virtual Fixtures platform, this was ridiculously large, absurdly expensive and extremely primitive compared to today’s devices. And yet — it was magical. And it convinced me all those years ago that computing would eventually be a seamless mix of the physical and digital.
On the other hand, I am worried about the negative impacts that mixed reality could have on society if there aren’t protections to safeguard consumers. Having spent my whole career working on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, I am keenly aware of the potential for abuse and feel obligated to warn the public and educate policymakers.
This means pointing out that mixed reality devices could easily track our behaviors and monitor our emotions like no technology we’ve ever deployed. Not only could this threaten our personal privacy, but it could also leave us vulnerable to AI-powered manipulation throughout our daily lives.
I usually explain these issues through academic papers and written pieces like this one, but six months ago, I partnered with HeadQ Productions in the Netherlands with the goal of creating a short film that could show the subtle risks that AI-powered mixed reality glasses could have on society. With support from Minderoo Films, the Responsible Metaverse Alliance and The XR Guild, we produced what may be the first public service announcement about our augmented future — a short film called “Privacy Lost.”
The short film presents a snapshot of the risks by depicting a young family eating in a restaurant while mixed reality glasses transport them to a beachfront café. Using sensors that are already common in current MR headsets, the family’s emotions are processed in real time, enabling an AI-generated waitress to optimize the sales tactics, skillfully upselling the husband, the wife and even the young son.
The image below from Privacy Lost shows how immersive devices could allow real-time emotions to be tracked, shared with other users, and even fed to AI systems for use in generative advertising.
In another image below, the film depicts how an AI monitors the family in real-time, assessing their behaviors while deploying a virtual waitress to upsell each of them. By tracking their changing emotions, this conversational AI system has the capacity to target and engage each person interactively and use their personal feelings to sway them towards influence goals — in this case, purchases.
Of course, the danger of optimized influence is not limited to selling products or services. The same tactics could be used to deploy misinformation and propaganda. This is why regulators and policymakers must focus on the ability of emerging AI systems to engage users in interactive and adaptive conversations — it will enable powerful new forms of targeted influence.
I usually refer to this as the AI manipulation problem and point out that these techniques could impact users through current text-based chatbots or voice-bots, as well as through virtual spokespeople as shown in “Privacy Lost.” The film aims to educate the public about these risks, especially when using mixed reality devices that can monitor user behaviors and emotions. The call to action is a regulation that protects emotional privacy and bans real-time manipulation through conversational influence.
Yes, there are significant risks we must address, but I firmly believe mixed reality is a magical technology that will enhance our lives. If we can protect against the downsides, our augmented future will free us from the flat screens we stare at all day, returning our focus to the world around us and the people we share it with.
In fact, ten years from now, we might look back at movies from the 2020s that show people walking down busy streets with their necks bent, staring at little screens, and we’ll laugh at how awkward and primitive it looks. After all, in the 2030s, content will materialize around us, showing up in the places we need it most. Our future will be augmented — we just need it to be safe.
Louis Rosenberg is an early pioneer in the fields of VR, AR and AI. He founded Immersion Corporation (IMMR: Nasdaq), Microscribe 3D, Outland Research and Unanimous AI.