Augmented reality and the exocortex

With Apple leaking their AR project timeline, CNBC has a roundup of all the players trying to make an entry in this category. Unanswered is why all of these companies are chasing a dream that, so far, hasn’t delivered.

In Charles Stross’s Accelerando, a partly tongue in cheek take on the road to a technological singularity, a primary component of the transhumanist future is the “exocortex,” a component of your mind that exists outside of the brain you were born with. While the point of science fiction is not, for me, to be predictive, I found Accelerando full of surprisingly plausible extrapolations.

The smartphone was the first meaningful step toward an exocortex. It “remembers” things for you, like meetings and tasks you mean to do in the future. It communicates and receives data on your behalf, amplifying the reach of your ideas. But the exocortex is not, in this example, mere local hardware. The smartphone connects you to cloud-based mapping platforms, extending your mind’s ability to navigate. Your exocortex, comprised of a suite of local and remote applications, allows you to “know” how to reach a particular place you’ve never visited.

So what we get from the smartphone is a meaningful expansion of our mind’s base abilities, in an interface which is nearly as portable as our mind itself.

The interface between our mind and our exocortex is, for now, our eyes. The eyes are the highest bandwidth channels into the brain our biology provides as stock—10 megabits of data per second. So if you want to get a large quantity of data back into the brain, the eyes are the ticket.

This is why so much effort has gone into screen technology since the advent of the iPhone, and why the iPhone was so category defining: the entire surface of the product could be directed toward information transmission to the brain via the eyes. Much more rewarding than the narrow windows standard to the Blackberry devices of the day.

But there are limits here: you have to hold the device to see the input, and you have to choose between the device’s input and data from the outside world. This creates friction.

AR is the inevitable next step to network our brains with a growing exocortex. We’re still far away from direct neurological interfaces, and we’re far from maxing out the potential of the optical channel.

This category will happen and will usher in all new ways of doing everything, as much as the smartphone did. The only questions are:

  • How long will it take to meaningfully miniaturize the hardware to solve this in an appealing way?
  • What is the level of software maturity needed to bring this into mainstream use? In other words, how far are we from killer apps?
  • What are the input devices needed to comfortably send data back out of your mind in the absence of your fingers on a screen?

“Smartphone” was a category before the iPhone. Blackberry, Palm, HTC, Danger and others had internet-enabled communicators years before 2007. Like today’s AR devices, though, these were sold in mostly niche, business-focused markets. It would take a breakthrough in miniaturization and interaction design to make this technology ubiquitous.

It seems we’re waiting on the same event for augmented reality.

By 2030, we all have AR headsets, though. I’m willing to bet anything on that.