Tuesday, January 07, 2014

I knew it!

I've been talking about this innovation for years: contact-lens screens. What's the biggest possible TV screen in the world? Why, it's the one you can slap directly on your eyes, of course! A contact-lens screen completely covers your field of view—what could be bigger or more comprehensive than that? According to this article, the new digital device, iOptik, "provide[s] an experience equivalent to watching a 240-inch television at a distance of 10 feet." That's not entirely satisfactory to me: I want my virtual reality to be all-encompassing. I'm also not satisfied that this new tech hasn't completely shaken itself free of the need for regular eyeglasses: currently, to use iOptik to its fullest potential, you also have to put on a pair of rather awkward-looking glasses. No: while this new eyewear is plenty interesting, I'm waiting for the advent of eyeglass-free contact-lens screens.

The above-linked article doesn't mention what powers the lenses on your eyes. When I imagined such lenses on my own, I speculated that they would either run on body heat or run on light, the way a solar calculator does. What powers these new lenses?

The lenses are supposed to offer the user "augmented reality," which is to say a normal field of view overlaid with digital labeling, analysis, etc. Augmented reality has been around for some time; just check Google Maps, where you can see a satellite image of a town from an eagle's-eye perspective, along with labels for streets and buildings. A street-view version of this has also been around, as a cell-phone app, for a few years, allowing the user to figure out more quickly where restaurants, shops, and various points of interest are.

There are other, less practical but more humorous, versions of augmented reality, such as the digital mapping of cartoon faces onto real people. Watch this one-minute video about a Korean commercial for Snickers to see what I mean. Now imagine that technology evolving in a smooth, motion-capture direction: in just a few years, you will probably be able to choose how you see people. Do you think of your boss as Gollum or as a brain-eating zombie? Set your "mo-cap aug-real" lenses to "Gollum" or "zombie," and watch your boss shamble skeletally around the conference room while he bloviates about the annual report.

And what's the first thing to which people unfailingly wish to apply new technology? Porn! iOptik and its more advanced descendants are tailor-made for porn. No need to use your imagination to "undress someone with your eyes" anymore: just flip your lenses to the "naked" setting and voilà! You could probably even set the lenses to distort reality: if you want to imagine that you're surrounded by cartoonishly buxom women, you can map huge boobs onto the ladies. And, ladies: if you want to imagine you're surrounded by men who are hung like porn stars, there's no stopping you, either! Remember that old speech-making technique in which you're advised to imagine your audience naked as a way to lower your own anxiety? Nothing to imagine anymore!

And that may be the down-side to all this: with augmented reality comes a deterioration of the imaginative faculties. When everything is in front of your eyes, there no longer needs to be anything in your head. I can imagine another down-side, too, as this technology evolves: pretty soon, there will be no need ever to see people as they really are. As in cyberspace, people will be able to fashion themselves into idealized avatars that they can then project onto other people's eye-screens. Plastic surgery might just become a thing of the past; the same might even be true of makeup. Why make yourself up when your digital projection already looks so fabulous? Taking your eyewear off at night, just before you go to bed, and seeing your life-partner as he or she really appears will be little different from seeing your significant other, these days, in his or her rumpled, disheveled, un-made-up state.


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