Digital Trash

Hardly a day goes by right now without some new announcement by some new startup or established player announcing that they’re launching an Augmented Reality platform that allows you to leave digital messages to others. Sometimes these are private messages to a specified group and sometimes they’re public, with everyone being able to access them, providing that they’re using that particular proprietary platform.

This isn’t a new idea – I was thinking and writing about it back in 2005 when I wrote A Manifesto for Taking Wikipedia into the Physical World and I don’t claim to be the only one 5 years ahead of the ability of the technology at the time. Back in 2005, I also presented the idea at Wikimania, where the audience included Jimmy Wales himself – you can read a rough transcript of that here too if you like.

My concern (as you’ll see from those posts) is how this information is curated that is being eagerly posted all over the place as I write this today. My original thinking would be to have an organisation in place like Wikipedia, who would be able to police it for accuracy – whether deliberate or intentional. If you think about it, the potential for abuse is huge – just imagine a restaurateur making up their own reviews. And potentially, it’s infinitely more complex than Wikipedia as it needs a central repository for the information, which is then edited for accuracy and authenticity, ideally by someone with local knowledge too, before being allowed to be replicated locally.

Augmented Reality has many exciting potential uses, but the annotations are only going to work if the information is credible and the user can rely on it. Otherwise, a few dodgy meals on the basis of forged reviews, or some misinformation about the historicity of the building or district will undermine the user’s trust. And once that’s gone, it won’t return.

This type of messaging is sometimes called Digital or Virtual Graffiti and this highlights another of my concerns about this type of user generated content. Is Augmented Reality going to be so cluttered, ugly and intrusive that people eventually abandon using it altogether?

Of course, this content doesn’t have to be user generated. It could be centrally controlled and generated with partners by the company developing the AR. But then, that has real scale issues if the ambition is to populate a country, let alone the Globe.

Please don’t understand me – I’m a huge fan of the concept of AR and you have to only read my 5 year old posts to appreciate that. But I’m raising some very valid issues for the nascent industry that need to be thought about seriously once we stop getting hyped by the hype.

The best way that the AR industry can start tackling these issues is form some kind of Association or Committee to agree some standards and best practices. It won’t be easy – these things never are, especially when you’re writing the rule book as you go. But it does need to be done if the AR industry is to thrive for its users and equally importantly be self-regulating.

10 years ago I attended the very first meeting of what became the Mobile Marketing Association in the UK (and perhaps the first such meeting in the world). Then the mobile marketing industry was at about the same stage at AR, maybe even lower profile in many ways. It was the right time to start thinking about the “boring but important” issues then, just as it’s the right time to be thinking along those likes for the AR industry today. Because if these things aren’t thought through, the sector will never take off.

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