Augmented Computing (In Concept)

March 10, 2021 / Ben Bajarin

I want to add a perspective to the idea of augmented reality (AR) that I don’t hear discussed much. When most people, who are familiar with augmented reality, talk about AR, the concept is rooted in overlaying the digital world with the physical. Common use cases surrounding the AR vision include things like getting directions and having more details revealed to you on your route. Shopping and having lists, product information, and more revealed to help you shop more efficiently. Communications where your emails, or texts, or contact information can show up right before your eyes. I could go on, but there is a fundamental point lost in these use cases that I feel will shape the category.

What is Augmentation?
First, we need to understand what the foundation will be for augmented reality. We can start with recognizing the definition of augmenting. Augment, in its verb form, means “to make (something) greater by adding to it.” If we start with this simple understanding of what augment means, we can then have a more productive conversation about the future of augmented reality. Just looking at the word, augmented reality, in definition, would mean to make reality greater by adding to it. The challenge I’ve run across with several vision pieces for augmented reality is how the use cases discussed make reality worse, not better.

I think this conversation about the future of computing and augmented computing needs to center on at this moment in time is what exactly we are trying to augment. More specifically, are we trying to augment (make it better by adding to it) the computer or the human? I would argue that if we flip our thinking from augmenting the computer, which is what most people think, to augmenting the human, we will get closer to a reality where computers make our lives better and not worse. And in that viewpoint, I’d argue that people will have far less tolerance for the inefficiencies most of our smartphones and PC experiences encompass.

Augmenting the Human
In case it isn’t clear, I have personally landed on the side of augmenting the human and not the computer. I mean that whatever form a computing device focused on augmentation takes, its sole purpose should be to make the human’s capabilities better. For example, I believe health and fitness wearables are a form of augmented computing. If you use one of these devices and use the Apple Watch, you realize it increases my health potential in various ways. For me, Apple Watch increases my fitness and overall health by monitoring many vitals (with more to come in future versions) and bringing a computational element to health that is not achievable without it. By definition, Apple Watch is augmenting my health.

Another area of great interest to me is devices we have in our ears. From my perspective, a simple hearing aid gives us a basis for augmented hearing. Hearing aids enhance hearing for those who need them, but there are applications for this for everyone. For the last six months, I’ve been trying the IQBuds Max from Nuheara and it has been truly enlightening for me under the premise of augmented hearing.

These earbuds are not just noise-canceling music devices. Their true value is the sound-enhancing features, particularly around voices. They have an active microphone that listens to outside sounds and can eliminate white noise and isolate sound to hear everything better, even if you have good hearing in general. The software includes different modes that can isolate sounds in certain directions as well as in real-time.

My experience with the Nuheara IQBuds Max has shown me a vision for what an ear-worn computer could do in augmenting my hearing. It is not just helping me hear noises or conversations better, but also digitally managing the sound levels, helping me isolate sounds that are softer by boosting them or softening sounds that are too loud all in real-time. These, not just active noise canceling but active noise listening earbuds, have shaped my perspective on augmented computing more than any other product I’ve tried up to this point. They are the definition of augmenting, to make better, my hearing by using a microcomputer with AI that sits in my ears.

Lastly, let’s talk about augmented vision. If we use my basis that the primary way to think about augmented computing is computers than enhance the human’s capabilities, then vision becomes quite clear, literally. Yes, a computer I wear over my eyes will bring elements of our experiences with computers today. Still, as I said, our tolerance for inefficiencies will go up dramatically when it comes to our eyes. I’ve come up with a saying that I’m fond of is while the wrist and ears are prime real estate for computing devices, the eyes are sacred ground.

In 2019, I did a project for a company working on an augmented reality product. We brought consumers in and tested a wide range of current AR solutions. From this research, it became abundantly clear to me the eyes will be an extremely difficult place to put computers. Rather, the eyes will be an extremely difficult place to bring the current smartphone or PC-centric thinking of computing. The core challenge is nearly every use case that exists today distracts from our vision instead of enhancing it. Showing me a text message gets in the way of my vision. Even how directions are shown will need to be re-imagined as not to obstruct or getting in the way of what I see in the world. This is why I’m convinced this will be the most difficult place to bring a computer over my eyes and why we are still a long way off from any true mainstream smart glasses solution.

Whatever ends up becoming mainstream, that is, a computer for my eyes will have to, at its basic level, augment my vision in useful ways. Sight is precious, and humans know this, so enhancing our sight will be one of the most useful features of smart glasses. Letting me see farther, closer, in the dark or low-light, are all core augmented vision use cases. How the computational/digital world overlays will need to recognize sight is precious, less is more, and focus on truly adding to the visual experience, not detracting from it.

Ultimately, augmented computing by way of devices we wear, that give us “superhuman” capabilities, could be the purest manifestation of Steve Jobs’s perspective that computers are bicycles for our mind. The observation that Jobs makes is that what humans create is added to our efficiency as a species by way of computers. Augmented computing will enhance our capabilities as a species and take this concept of computers, making us more efficient in all we do to a new level.

It’s a great vision, but also one that is extremely difficult and still very far off.

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