Culture Vulture

Will augmented reality change how we see things?

Mobile game app Pokemon Go's popularity broadens the reach of augmented reality and challenges the way we interact with the world

It has taken me a while to muster my nerves to look face swops in the eye.

The social media phenomenon that became widespread earlier this year uses smartphone applications to reassign faces digitally.

With a few taps on a phone, friends can exchange faces and a person can resemble his favourite celebrity, hominid relative, or turn an object into an image of him.

It has been used by everyone from celebrities to politicians and the popular face swop app MSQRD (masquerade, with the 21st century allergy to vowels) was acquired by social media giant Facebook for an undisclosed sum in March, mere months after it launched.

The technology may be relatively new - among the earliest face swop apps launched is Face Stealer by Yahoo in 2013 - but the concept is not. A famous example is the 1954 photomontage, Dali Mona Lisa, where surrealist artist Salvador Dali swops his moustachioed face onto Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

The uncanny yet curious results of such hybrids continue to drive the appeal of face swops in the digital age.

The possibility of us looking at a world increasingly stratified by virtual layers is becoming more real. This may pose questions and challenges about the way we see, interact and connect with people and our environment.

Among the more fascinating, if disturbing, examples are babies with aged, wrinkled faces and people with the glassy, soulless faces of dolls; no more guessing what you might look like as a Cabbage Patch Kid.

These bizarre hybrids may be the stuff of nightmares, but people cannot seem to tear their eyes away from them. For confirmation, one need only look at the many lists circulating online which promise the creepiest/weirdest/most terrifying face swops made.

What I find unnerving are not the crude face grafts, although human faces swopped with the noses of mutts does produce grotesque results. What perturbs me is the type of face swop between two people - strangers to me - where I cannot tell that an exchange has taken place. Their complexion is similar, the lighting in the picture is even and the procedure leaves no trace behind.

Such face swops have popped up on my social media feed enough times now that when my eyes fall on pictures of people photographed in pairs, the thought, "Are those their own faces?" crosses my mind.

The veracity of images has seldom been stable, but the growing ease with which the man in the street can manipulate them - smartphone in hand, on-the-go and with a few taps - is blurring the perception of what is material and objective.

Indeed, this rewriting of what is real such that it merges with the unreal and surreal to become almost indistinguishable may be the reality of this age and perhaps the most pervasive form of this rewriting is augmented reality.

The technology has been in the news of late because of the global craze sparked by mobile game app Pokemon Go, which uses a smartphone's camera to overlay images of virtual Pokemon - pocket monsters in short - onto the real-world environment.

Augmented reality, however, has been around since at least the late 1960s and the term was coined in 1990 by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell who used it to describe how a digital device, worn by aircraft electricians on their heads, works to display the plane's schematics onto boards on the factory floor and guide them in assembly work.

The use of augmented reality has expanded into industries such as entertainment, architecture and marketing, but its nature remains unchanged with digital information such as virtual images and objects superimposed onto a view of the physical environment.

What has changed with time is the growing adoption of augmented reality by mainstream users because of advancements in consumer technology.

An early example is Google Glass - the computerised eyeglass that allows users to take photos and videos as well as view information from the Internet through the glass in a way that its display is overlaid onto the real world. It was unveiled in 2012 and, until early last year, was selling in limited quantities for US$1,500 (S$2,020) before it was taken off the market while the company works to launch an improved version in the future.

The reach of Google Glass has been curtailed in part by privacy concerns over its video recording function, but Pokemon Go, which is developed by the company Niantic and which Google owns 30 per cent of, has exceeded 100 million downloads just a month into its launch.

How augmented reality continues to broaden its reach to the masses remains to be seen, but given how bullish some companies are about its future - Apple's chief executive Tim Cook says it will be "huge" and the company will continue to invest in the technology in the long run - the possibility of us looking at a world increasingly stratified by virtual layers is becoming more real.

In turn, this may pose questions and challenges about the way we see, interact and connect with people and our environment. If we do not all gaze through the same looking glass and experience our surroundings in a similar way, what might this mean for collective cohesion? If we eye people through additional lenses, beyond inherent bias, how might the way we build relationships change?

Should such a new reality dawn, the ends to which we live it and the cost at which we do so hang in the balance. And one can only hope we will be clear-eyed about what is a go and no-go.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Will augmented reality change how we see things?'. Print Edition | Subscribe