The Trouble With Augmented Reality and Other Cool Tech

This year’s Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference showcased a wide variety of gadgets and ideas, one of the most interesting being Microsoft’s new “augmented reality” mapping technology. Clearly, exponentially growing technologies are set to change social communications, bringing up a number of touchy privacy and control questions.

Demonstrating the ability not only to see photo representations of streets — similar to Google’s Street View — but also to go inside a building, see three-dimensional graphics all around, and see other users’ flickrphotos overlaid on the map, Microsoft’s Bing maps architect Blaise Aguera y Arcas wowed the crowd.

Those features alone are a significant upgrade to maps as most of us know them, but then Arcas took it a step further, showing how a live 4G video broadcast from a friend’s cellphone in Seattle’s Pike Market could be integrated with the maps function.

This is “the foundation for augmented reality,” said Arcas, referring to the mixing of virtual worlds with reality.

Less Help, Please

Almost everyone will be impressed with such advances, except perhaps privacy hawks and those who don’t want big anonymous cities turned into places where real-time movements can be monitored like those in a small town.

Indeed, it was ironic that these new social mapping features, which could have big privacy implications, were announced the same week that Google was taking major heat for its rollout of Buzz, a Twitter-like social networking tool built into Gmail.

One of the major problems with Buzz was that it initially tried to “help” users by automatically having them follow the people they emailed the most. While that might sound like a good idea in theory, in reality many people have conversations with people that they don’t want others to know about — for example, messages between a doctor and his psychiatric patients, or conversations between ex-spouses about their kids.

Fortunately, the great thing about a dynamic marketplace is that when a company goes a bit too far, like Google did with Buzz, the public backlash usually produces a quick fix to the problem. In response to user outcry, for example, Google quickly changed its auto-follow system to a friendlier auto-recommendation system.

New Social Norm?

Such mistakes and corrections are common while market leaders work to strike a balance between user control and functionality. Recall, for instance, the trashing of Facebook’s Beacon feature that broadcast in the users’ News Feed outside-Facebook purchases for items like movie tickets.

It’s not that users didn’t like the Facebook News Feed — it’s just that they didn’t think it was such a great idea for outside companies to surprise them by publishing their spending habits without their permission. Other companies in the industry should take such lessons seriously going forward.

For instance, a live video broadcast is cool, but what happens when multiple broadcasts combine with face recognition technology — perhaps to allow for real-time cyber-stalking? Hopefully, the brilliant people working on augmented reality are thinking about how they might allow users to opt out as well as opt in to this amazing new social networking space. If they aren’t considering it, perhaps that creates an opportunity for new companies to fill the void.

Although tech heavy-hitters like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have argued that making personal data public is the new “social norm,” it’s likely that real-time physical privacy is still highly valued. Consider, for instance, how many people tweet about being somewhere after the event is over.

The TED conference confirmed that exponentially growing technologies are pushing social communications in exciting directions. Meanwhile, expectations of privacy have certainly evolved since the Internet became popular, but the issues haven’t disappeared.

As self-broadcasting tools, geo-location games, and live mapping with cameras continue to grow in popularity, the companies that provide them can protect their business interests by working to expand the user’s freedom of choice.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter@soniaarrison

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