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 Google Glass. The now quietly and industrially revived but when launched way too ambitious augmented reality glasses. 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 person’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 Star 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.