What the Wartortle?!

On Augmented Reality & Our Impending Blended Digitized Future

At a park in Post Falls, Idaho, near where I live, there is a pond where you can see different types of wildlife, including ducks, muskrats, and turtles. Once my children and I even saw a beaver.

One autumn afternoon in 2016 when my children and I visited the park, we observed that it seemed unusually full of people. Yet the other visitors seemed strangely absent-minded and even slightly disoriented. Suddenly I heard a man talking to me. "Did you see the wartortle over there?" the man, probably in his late twenties, asked, as he started to approach me.

"A what?" I replied.

"The wartortle. I just saw one over there by the pond," he said excitedly, taking it for granted that I knew what he was referring to.

It became apparent that this man, like most of the other visitors at the park that day, was "seeing" creatures I could not. In fact, they were playing Pokémon Go—an augmented reality game that overlays virtual creatures onto spaces in the physical world. To succeed at the game, users had to venture out into nature to capture and train various creatures, which then battled the armies amassed by other participants. The game briefly enjoyed the status of a phenomenon in 2016 but became controversial after a number of players died of accidents caused by their not paying sufficient attention to their physical surroundings.

The people at the park that day were not interested in the ducks, muskrats, and turtles, but only in the wartortles, charizards, and mudkips with which the grounds had been virtually populated, and which were only visible through gaming apps.

What was going on that day was something called "augmented reality," or AR for short. AR is not the same as Virtual Reality (VR). With a VR headset, the user leaves the real world to interact with an entirely simulated environment. By contrast, AR simply enhances and optimizes the real world, providing users with an experience that blends the physical and the virtual.

Pokémon Go was a crude and clunky early experiment in AR. But could more sophisticated versions of AR technology significantly impact the lives of ordinary people, and even change how we approach the world and each other?

This question was addressed at the 2020 Think Big Festival. Part of the "Innovation Collective," this technology conference/festival was jointly held across three cities through digital and in-person talks. I had the opportunity to attend the conference in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

"A Very Blended Digitized Future"

One of the conference presenters was Chen-Ping Yu, co-founder and CEO of the AI technology company Phiar. Chen-Ping spoke about his own research into AR, including the development of glasses that will blend together physical and digital spaces.

Right now AR is limited to driving apps and platforms like Pokémon and its successor games. But at the Think Big Festival, Chen-Ping told us that AR will soon change how all of us experience the world. Our sensory perception will be linked to AI algorithms that will continually adjust how the world is presented to us.

Phiar has stated on its website, "Our mission is to change the way you perceive and navigate the world, forever." Chen-Ping believes this mission will ultimately be achieved when everyone is wearing AR glasses, which will mediate to each person an optimized version of the world. Speaking of these glasses, Chen-Ping said:

They will really revolutionize how we interact with the world. . . . Your home may even be much more simpler physically than before because you can change the layout just by overlaying different AR. That's going to be our future. It's going to be a very blended digitized future for us.

"All of Us Will Become Cyborgs"

Other speakers at the Think Big Festival spoke about ways we can use technology to customize ourselves and other people, and thus redefine ourselves and our relationship to the world. One researcher said that work is being done on brain implants to put data directly into the brains of students to help them with memorization. A neuroscientist spoke about his research to bring the sense of smell into virtual reality.

Will this mean that we all become cyborgs? That was a question one member of the audience asked the panelists. The answer given by Chen-Ping was instructive:

When you think about cyborgs, you typically think about hardware being implanted in your brain to enhance your sensory system. But you don't really have to because now imagine having your AR glasses on you. AR glasses are not only showing you information [about] the world, it's also sensing the world through computer vision AI that's running on [your] device. . . . Therefore, I think all of us will become cyborgs in the next ten or twenty years.

Chen-Ping was not simply talking about a variation of "Google Glass," which was all the rage for the first half of the last decade but never moved beyond experimentation. The glasses produced by Google were basically just a computer through which external information was delivered through an optical head-mounted display. The goal of AR glasses (and eventually "smart contact lenses") is much more ambitious: to change how the physical world looks to the user, to overlay the real world with an enhanced version of it.

Each user may eventually have a personalized algorithm in the cloud that is wirelessly connected to his or her smart contact lenses. Such an algorithm could continuously update itself based on the latest information about the user's preferences and desires, and then use that information to customize how that person sees the world and other people, offering a view of reality that is "just right" for him.

Impatient with Reality

The techno-fetishism of the Think Big Festival, with its promise of optimizing the world through digital illusions, fuses the obsessive monomania of certain engineers with the escapism of basement dwellers who long ago opted out of life in the real world. The utopian urge to escape from the world—seen recently in Jeff Bezos's jaunt into space and Elon Musk's fixation with burrowing—now finds expression in the promise of emancipating people from the constraints of materiality.

But for those who have grown impatient with the givenness of reality, AR is actually just the beginning. The next holy grail of the tech industry—one that incorporates AR but goes beyond it—is an enterprise known as the "metaverse."

From Augmented Reality to Metaverse

Imagine putting on VR goggles and controlling a three-dimensional avatar with which you can attend social events, form relationships, and browse virtual storefronts where you can conduct business just as in the real world. Imagine that through a convergence of AR, VR, AI, 3D holograms, brain-computer interfacing, and smart contact lenses, the internet becomes a "place" where you can actually enter and have experiences. Imagine being at the park and interacting with a 3D wartortle who seems just as real as the other people at the pond, some of whom are actually there while others are present merely in their avatar projections. As far-fetched as this sounds, a number of companies are working to bring this state of affairs—known as the metaverse—to life.

One such company is Avatar Dimension, whose vice president, Cathy Hackl, told 60 Minutes that the metaverse is "this world of infinite possibilities" that could compensate for the fact that "right now the physical world is finite." She added, "There's only so much of earth, but in these virtual spaces you can literally build your own world."

Avatar Dimension and similar companies are not just trying to create a fictional world, such as exists in games like Fortnite, but an enhanced version of the real world that we can "inhabit." To facilitate this, the Silicon Valley-based company Upland offers the opportunity to buy digital properties that are counterparts to real property. Upland triggered a virtual land-grab that is now attracting big investors.

The assumption behind these speculative purchases is that once we begin inhabiting the metaverse, virtual spaces will be just as important and valuable as real-world places. Indeed, virtual spaces may come to be perceived as more important than those in the real world.

Zuckerberg's New Ambition: "Bring the Metaverse to Life"

Never wanting to be left out of the action, Mark Zuckerberg is hoping to colonize the metaverse for his company, Facebook. At the end of June, Zuckerberg announced in an interview with The Verge that the metaverse is "the successor to the mobile internet," and that his company would work to "bring the metaverse to life." He added:

But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content, you are in it . . . a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together. . . . What the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence. . . . The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they'll feel real.

We got a sense of how serious Zuckerberg is on October 28, when he announced that his company was changing its name to "Meta." On the same day, he described his vision for a parallel digital realm:

The next platform and medium will be even more immersive: an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it. And we call this the metaverse. And you're going to be able to do almost anything you imagine. . . . The metaverse is going to enable richer experiences by letting us add new layers to the world that we can interact with.

A computer that you can enter? An internet that you can inhabit? This might sound like the stuff of science fiction, or perhaps the dark vision of someone like Ray Kurzweil, but Zuckerberg is allocating at least $10 billion a year, and 10,000 new employees, to making this a reality. He announced that his goal is to reach a billion people in the next decade, meaning that by 2031 a large percentage of the human race would be working, shopping, going to school, and forming relationships in the metaverse.

Build Back Better—and Leave the World Behind

Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) has been partnering with the XR Association, which is an association of companies working to develop hardware for "extended reality" (XR). The association has been positioning its technology as vital to President Biden's "Build Back Better" framework. On this basis, the association has been lobbying Congress to invest substantial funds in its projects.

Zuckerberg may also be hoping to tap into funds allocated to addressing climate change, for he is positioning his projects as a solution to global warming. The connection between the metaverse and climate change may not be immediately apparent, but Zuckerberg's argument is that staying home to enter the metaverse will cut down on travel and thus reduce carbon emissions. The metaverse might even be used to justify future lockdowns based on environmental concerns. After all, if Zuckerberg is correct that anything the real world can do, the metaverse can do better, then why would anyone need to leave his home for non-essential travel? Who would be so uncaring as to engage in energy-consuming luxuries like traveling to community events or to church when the digital equivalents of these activities are readily available in the metaverse?

But is it accurate to assume that anything the real world can do, technology can do better? Surely the emotional connection that comes from physical presence and touch can never be fully replicated within a virtual context.

Well, not so fast. In the 2021 Global Technology Governance Summit, put on by the World Economic Forum last April, Sly Lee gave an update on work he is doing to virtually replicate the sense of touch. Lee, a co-founder and CEO of the company EMERGE, explained that his company has invented a machine that uses sound pressure to enable a person to "feel" objects in midair (objects that are not actually there). In what amounts to a high-tech sleight of hand, he plans on "leveraging the technology to create different emotional languages and how you can convey language through touch."

Seven months later, Zuckerberg's company announced it was creating gloves that use high-level electronic technology to simulate the sense of touch for the wearer. The gloves, which have actually been in development for seven years, use airflow to create the sensation that objects are pressing against the skin. These gloves, and eventually perhaps an entire smart-suit, will bring tactile perception into the experience of the metaverse. When an avatar touches you, you'll really feel it.

At one time, all this would have sounded creepy, merely another example of corporate hubris. But after the Covid lockdowns, the idea of having an embodied internet that we can enter and be together in sounds oddly comforting. If we can't leave our homes, then the next best thing may be to enter a shared virtual space where we can enjoy one another's company unbounded by the fixities of space. But as attractive as this may sound, it comes at an enormous cost.

Towards a Digital Tower of Babel

There are many social, economic, and philosophical difficulties connected with the metaverse: It packages existential solipsism as the ultimate form of human connection. It offers an escape to those who would prefer to live in a lie than to engage with the messy and complex world of reality. It fosters the illusion that we can suspend the vulnerability of human presence and still have meaningful relationships. It presents a space designed to make us feel that our needs are being met, even while the real world is plagued by injustice, poverty, and crime. It offers an ecosystem that can be entirely controlled, monitored, and manipulated by the powers of this world, especially corporations, media, and governments. The metaverse is the ultimate sedation tool for those who have vested interests in reducing people to passive users and consumers.

Ultimately, however, the entire enterprise is a giant exercise in idolatry, the attempt to build a digital Tower of Babel. The meta-idolatry of the metaverse combines Francis Bacon's dream of using science to dominate nature with the hyper-efficiency of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism. It is an amalgam of contradictory impulses united only in the primordial temptation to turn away from seeing any purpose to the world other than what we have engineered for ourselves.

Craig Gay articulated the basic problem in his 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist:

The impact of science and technology upon the modern imagination is such that it has effectively stripped us of the ability to apprehend the reality of any other meaning and any other purpose in the world save those which we have managed to "engineer" for ourselves.

Recreating Human Beings

If the dream of the metaverse is realized, then the boundaries between the online and offline worlds may become so porous that it will be impossible to tell which is which. The difference between reality and simulation may not only become blurred, but also trivialized and irrelevant for many.

Where does this leave us as human beings? Before AR and the metaverse can customize reality to meet our kaleidoscopic web of desires, people must first be "optimized" to accommodate these changes. To live in the type of world these engineers are trying to create requires that we become the type of people who can passively receive such a world: people who surrender their inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things, who see technological absolutism as a positive good, and who embrace a narcissism that looks upon the world as simply one more deliverable to satisfy their desires. It requires that we become impatient with reality, and thus turn into the type of people who will greet a digitally optimized world as a form of redemption.

In short, it would require me to become the sort of person who is more interested in the digital wartortle virtually placed at the other side of the pond than in the muskrats and turtles that are actually in the pond.

It is easy to think, "That would never happen to me, because I would never become that sort of a person." But in fact, the optimization of humans for metaverse-compatibility is already well advanced. Consider how many parents are ostensibly spending time with their children while their attention is actually elsewhere, distracted by what is happening on their phones. Consider how many spouses spend more time with technology than with each other. The turn away from physical reality and relationships to the digital ecosystem is now so commonplace that it seems normal. The final step—namely, that we prefer spending time with digital animals and people than with real ones who are physically with us—may turn out to be a very small step from where we are already.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #60, Spring 2022 Copyright © 2022 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo60/what-the-wartortle


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