Augmenting the senses: The dawning of the age of the cyborg


By Matt Law

Welcome to the future. Augmented reality or a completely alternate one beckons with two of the hottest tech properties of the moment, with Google Glass and Oculus Rift (as demo’d at our recent Hack Festival in July).

This article looks at emerging trends in the wearable technology market, with particular reference to the activities of the giants, Google and Facebook, and reviews their relative positionings and potential future intentions.

google glass_benConsider the much derided Google Glass, famed as the preserve of ‘glassholes’ and as likely to get yourself a punch in the face as it is to find you a nearby restaurant. The thinking behind the technology here is quite clear from Google’s mission “to organize and make useful the world’s information”. The heads-up display you are presented with enables this with a simple (and small) text interface projected directly onto the retina with maps, directions, google searches and a direct connection to your telephone.

The reasoning behind Facebooks stratospheric purchase of the infant Oculus company ($2bn for a year old firm) and its nascent virtual reality headset is less easy to discern. At first glance it appears tangential at best to the business of a social network. Gaming perhaps? People certainly are spending a lot of money right now, on Candy Crush, Throne Rush and Farm Heroes. But that cannot be the whole story.


Now just consider one thing, with Oculus at the moment the screen completely obscures your natural vision. You are presented with a completely alternate reality which appears captivatingly natural and the motion tracking on the headset is really quite immersive (once you get over the seasickness). But here’s a thought: in future versions the headset does not have to be completely opaque.

Imagine the same compelling and immersive experience overlaid on the real world. It’s like Google Glass but with augmentation to a whole other level in terms of fidelity, a whole other world laid over the top of the existing one. And so many gems to collect everywhere for you gamers.

Science fiction tends to point the way from fiction to fact and in this case Oculus is less the headset leading people to their doom in Hugh Howey’s Silo series and more the hypnotically alluring life augmenting device of the Sapporo Outbreak - although presumably without the murderous rages (and poor copy editing).

So what could be put down as a defensive move for a cash-rich company not wanting a potential competitor to get anywhere near the hot new thing could actually be the other side of the same coin as Google Glass. Both are not so far apart after all and looking to own the space of the technical augmentation of the senses.

Doubtless ultimately both will be playing to their own strengths. Facebook’s core asset is the rich data of people’s personal connections, preferences and social interactions (the ‘social graph’) whereas Google is the encyclopedic nature of its index of data, businesses and places. I imagine you will see their respective plays for the space coming through those lenses.

Looking ahead there is no long term defensible product differentiator in the technology space and both will tend towards the same ultimate expression of smaller, lighter, faster and higher definition wearable augmentation devices.

For a peek into a potential future, consider Google contact lenses in twenty years time. Diabetes research and monitoring is a fine starting point, but it isn’t the end of the journey.

google contact lenses

One thing is for sure, in 20 years we are going to look at the idea of holding a phone in our hands and holding it up to our faces every time we want to use it as incredibly quaint. In the words of Super Sad True Love Story’s vision for an ultra connected, dystopian, privacy free near future : “oh my god, what is this? An iPhone?!”