Q&A: Mike Liebhold, Principal Technologist at The Institute For the Future

On augmented reality glasses and the future of location-based publishing

The Institute for the Future is a forty-two year old nonprofit research group based in Palo Alto, California, dedicated to “aggregating group opinion about the future,” says senior researcher Mike Liebhold. A technologist who was the director of the Atari research lab in the 1980s, and was later chief technology officer in The Times Mirror Company, Liebhold has done a lot of thinking about the future of augmented reality.

Read, for instance, last year’s report “Blended Reality: Superstructing Reality, Superstructing Selves,” an excerpt of which reads like a science fiction movie voiceover: “Cyberspace is not a destination; rather, it is a layer tightly integrated into the world around us. Technology enables this transformation but, as is always the case, when we invent new technologies, they in turn re-invent us.”

CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Liebhold about how journalists and news organizations can start to think about the potential uses of augmented reality technology. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Lauren Kirchner: So when people ask you at parties to predict the future of the news industry, what do you say?

Mike Liebhold: News is going to be much more entrepreneurial. It’s probably not going to be enough just to simply tell good stories. Journalists are going to have to find a way to create, or collaborate with other people, to get their stories from the real world out there. That’s sort of the macro, macro view of journalism. But the fundamental nature of information is changing, and the way people are experiencing information in their lives is changing. It’s not just going from a paper page to a web screen, or to an iPhone or an iPad screen; there’s something much more fundamental going on. And that’s that information is moving from screens out into the physical world around us. We’re walking through very, very dense information spaces, and we’re just beginning to learn how to decode the information all around us, and how to tell stories based on the information all around us. So I think there are some great new intellectual challenges for journalists.

LK: What’s your opinion on the partnerships that are already forming between news organizations and location-based services? We at CJR recently tried out The Wall Street Journal’s “layer” on Foursquare, and it seemed to have great potential to bring new readers to their enormous archive of articles, based on the user’s current position. That one hadn’t quite been populated at the time, though, so it was mostly just restaurant reviews. Is that the kind of thing that you mean when you talk about “augmented reality”?

ML: Well, no. Augmented reality is really being able to view physical information. It’s not just walking around seeing red dots on the map of your handheld. Probably by about 2015 we’ll have the first augmented reality glasses, and probably by 2020 they might be really good. I would bet they’ll be made by Apple or Nike or someone like that, and they’ll make them really cool. Also probably by about 2020, contact lenses will be coming out of the laboratory.

LK: I was just reading somewhere about scientists who are developing wi-fi contact lenses, and I couldn’t believe it.

ML: I think it’s inevitable. Probably in about ten years, we’ll be walking around in very, very dense information spaces, and we’ll have to have very, very robust filtering tools to screen out all of the noise, the spam, the visual advertising that will be floating around in the world around us, so that we see only the information that we want. There’s also some challenges for storytellers. We’re sort of at day one here, we are just beginning to layer information onto the physical world. Already, for about ten years, we’ve been putting map data online. We’re now beginning to put web coded information in—geo-coded tweets, geo-coded Facebook posts, geo-coded Gowalla, Foursquare, and so on. There’s now a significant effort going on to make web standards for annotating places.

The one thing I’ll say about the Foursquare/Wall Street Journal effort is that one of the real problems is, all these location-based views of the world are [just] apps. And apps are like little walled gardens. Whereas what we are eventually going to see is an augmented reality Web. Map data and text annotations will be layered onto the physical world, as well as multimedia videos that align precisely with the real world, even 3D graphics, things like game avatars hovering in front of you, all of these things are going to be on the Web. There will be millions and millions of Web objects located in physical places. That’s just beginning, and I think it’s really where we’re headed.

LK: When you say apps are like little walled gardens, that makes sense, but the benefit of that, of course, is that it tailors your experience. The way you describe this augmented reality stuff, it sounds like you’d be bombarded by information wherever you went. So how, in a practical sense, would you be able to filter that incoming information as you’re walking around in the world, so you’d only get what you were actually interested in?

ML: Well, what you’ll see is applications that help you filter your own data. Like right now, you have data for your shopping lists, your media habits, your friends. So you’ll be able to put all of that information together and create your personal profile. So then analytic tools will be able to give contextual presentations, based on your location, your activity at the time, your agenda, your intentions, your itineraries—which your computer already has anyway. That will provide contextual filters. So if you’re walking down the street in a tourist neighborhood, you’ll see historical information, rather than an offer for the auto supply store you’re walking past.

LK: And so you’d be able to update what you’re looking for, because in addition to your augmented reality glasses, you’d also be carrying a smartphone, and could use that to change your “settings” or whatever?

ML: Yes, this data will either be on the device, or in the cloud. There will be applications that will look at all of your personal data and your calendar and your itinerary, and automatically set up filters to block certain things based on your intentions.

LK: So what can this kind of technology do specifically for news organizations? Can they make up some revenue by repurposing material from their archives, or use it as another way to distribute the content they’re already creating? Or will it just help them increase their audience? What’s the benefit?

ML: If you plot news stories on, say, Google Earth, for any one day, the information on the map will be sort of sparse. You’d have a few stories out of Baghdad, maybe half a dozen big stories out of New York, celebrity stories out of Los Angeles, tech stories from California, China, Afghanistan, etcetera. On a map, it’s very sparse. But if you look at a map and compress a time period, like thirty days, a year, five years, ten years, you start to see the density, the concentration of stories in each particular location, and rich historical context, and you can start to understand a place in a very different way. I think that can be a tool for journalists, whereas now, we tend to have a very short term memory about what happens in places.

As for revenue, if you are a very gifted storyteller, you can get people to pay for that, or maybe find a way to incorporate ads into that information experience. In that way, the game will stay the same.

LK: I have to ask: Is all of this going to turn us into robots? That is, will we as a human race become highly-distractible, attention-deficit-disordered zombies? Will it change the way our brains work? I am actually worried about this.

ML: We’ve been talking about this stuff for a number of years. My sense is that the research is probably correct, that it’s really affecting our cognitive processes in probably not-good ways. But I think it’s too early to know. The neural implications are still unclear; it might be just behavioral. I’m certain that walking around through dense information spaces will yes, change our behavior significantly.

I’ve been doing it for years. I walk around and I imagine I can see the invisible information. I’ll look at a wall and imagine I can see the electrical conduits inside, like a technical drawing. I’ll look at a street and imagine I can see the probability of a car being stolen from that parking lot. I’ll look at a building and imagine I can see the architectural history of the ornamental symbols on that building. Or I’ll imagine I can see game players out in public places. So yes, this will definitely change the way we see things, and it’s definitely out there, in a science fiction kind of way.

LK: The main thing I took away from that recent New York Times series on brains and technology was the way that constant interactions with electronic devices, not letting our brains rest, can hinder our ability to turn short-term memories into long-term memories. It’s important to have some downtime.

ML: Well, that’s the main function of sleep, I believe. It’s also the origin of the invention of weekends.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner