AR Etiquette for the Masses

If you’re on a bus in London, there is a general and codified understanding, mysteriously passed down through the ages, that you are as quiet as possible. If you’re on a bus in New York, there is a code of behaviour allowing you to blab about that no-good jerk and how he’s just not right for you as loud as you want, providing there is not any national tragedy. Personally, the first of the two customs is the one I enjoy more. It seems that manners in British society have largely, although not explicitly, filtered down through time to encompass our relationship with technology.

These things take time though, and when something is new, such as the use of all these new sorts of technologically mediated realities and their requisite headgear, these customs are not considered.

Consider the Glasshole. The now passé but then hilarious and if you ask me entirely appropriate term for a user of Google Glass. Released into the wild a mere four years ago, the wearer of the augmented glasses would be experiencing the world through the computer projecting information onto his world and cast into his eyes, querying and collecting via a tiny camera anything that came into view – and consistently uploading it to Google. If in the glasshole’s view, you, the unwitting participant were also cast whether you liked it or not into this reality and some server somewhere. Controversy justifiably ensued.

Recently, I was at a virtual and mixed reality conference. As you do at these sorts of events, there were also people with headsets thrust into realities of various types, tethered to their glowing host machines like some budget Stat Wars pilots scanning and nodding towards something only they could see. It is always a bit weird no matter how many times you see it.

Let me add though that I think this virtual and augmented reality stuff is cool. I’m not yet sure how cool, or in which way, but cool nonetheless. Besides the actual quality of the virtual or augmented reality experiences, that is to say, if walking around a field of orcs, for instance, the jury is still out on the social experience of it with others, the helmets and lenses into other worlds mixing into ours.

One of the interesting, and notice I didn’t write “cool,” headsets I saw that evening were Snap Glasses. Snap, the company behind Snapchat, a photo sharing app worth gazillions and inexplicably used by every kid between the ages of 14 and getting a job, now produces and sells a pair of comically although aesthetically well-designed glasses with cameras in them. The cameras, one on each side, take an eight-second video with a lens that apparently mimics human sight and the light goes on when videoing.

There were, perhaps thankfully, only two people wearing these things. And they were wearing them on their heads.

This was perhaps the most striking bit of it – that there was some amount of emergent, self-imposed decorum about having a direct feed to all of the internet of other people and their lives without asking their permission. Instead of walking around with them on intruding on everyone else’s world, they rested unused, casually parked but ready to roll, on the tops of their wearer’s heads. Just like sunglasses when inside, or when talking to someone. So not all the time, only when needed. I imagine it was the wearer’s signalling to the rest of us hapless and un-glassed that we were in a safe, unmediated space and that we wouldn’t end up in a feed somewhere whether we like it or not. Or maybe they were just heavy or uncomfortable.

And you know what, it was quite nice. Etiquette and manners evolved in various degrees to allow us to understand what was going on and to show respect. The veritable explosion of personal technology everywhere we turn happened before we had a chance of thinking about how the constant phone checking and tapping affected our relationships and trust. Shaking hands came from showing the other person you were unarmed, and cheers-ing with drinks proved you weren’t going to poison your drinking companion. Likewise, we need to think up some nice, clear and easy etiquette around the intrusive technology we’re thrusting into other people’s lives before it is too late.

10 things - April 2017

  1. Mastodon "Emperor of Sand" - Exquisite newish release by the behemoths. Another concept album moving from the best parts of old Baroness, nods to sludge and prog-rock all the while chugging along with amazingly melodic, foot-tapping tunes.
  2. The Mars Volta
  3. “Black Sails” (TV series) - As a kid I was thoroughly fascinated with pirates on a number of levels, from their views on race and society to just being punk as you can be during the birth of capitalism via mercantilism. They were not nice people in general, but that aside, the series itself does a lot to examine issues of the day, especially in terms of colonialism, slavery, race, sexuality and commerce. Replace the dragons in GoT with cannons and sails.
  4. Mesh networking - Something I used to be really fascinated with and perhaps an antidote to the corporate playground the internet has become?
  5. The Dolmus - The mini-bus tax/bus thing that gets you around Istanbul. Positively gorgeous emergent un-design. Best of all, no apps (I hope), just hop in/out strong localism.
  6. All or nothing drinking - Something I’ve been toying with which is either a minimum of a bunch of drinks or none.
  7. Post-nationalism
  8. Proto-Enlightenment - the late 1600’s in Europe were where our world today was born. Its fascinating to read about credit default swaps in the Netherlands in 1685.
  9. Kurdish Democratic-Confederalism - A people without a nation trying to fight three wars simultaneously, fighting genocide and trying to implement the most interesting anti-capitalist systems around - all at the same time.
  10. The death of the eight hour work day

Real life is quite scary, so let's design for that

Getting a mortgage is easily one of the terrifying things I've ever had to go through. It might be just me, but I’m incredibly averse to the idea of debt. Our Western lives have indulged and even revolved around it for probably 400 years at this point, but I still can’t come to grips with it. I would rather just wish the whole damn thing away, as would most people.

To think of how painful and unfriendly the process is for signing away a bigger debt than there is a good chance of me ever paying off in full is insane. Somehow this is what you do, and this is what our society expects out of us. We're led through a pricker bush of things we don’t understand or can compute with absolute confidence and then spit out the other side being two missed payments away from homelessness and crippling debt. The mortgage, and thus home ownership, is the cornerstone of the UK and US economies, and the whole damn, sordid thing has to be the least considered experience ever. The fact that I've been a lot more reassured about buying a pair or shoes online than the most expensive thing in my life is something to think about - and yet no one does.

I’ve been spending quite some time designing around a border. Well, actually The Border. By border, I don’t mean some conceptual design border or business constraint, but an actual, physical, geographical and most importantly, national border. This is very real. When you’re talking about people trafficking, “modern” slavery and of course the “stuffing” versus “swallowing” of things you’re not supposed to be bringing into the country, it is scary. This finally is being treated with the same care that buying a pair of shoes online is, and the mortgage isn’t.

When there are difficult things in life, we should be throwing everything behind making these better-designed experiences. But we are a weak species. Our palaeolithic minds are easily frightened and usually go for the easy, less scary route. We spend hundreds if not thousands of working hours on making buying those shoes online as easy as tieing them once you get them. What we should be doing is letting the shoe thing be difficult instead, because after all, they never end up fitting as good as if you just went into the damn shop.