Eric Johnson

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Will Wright at Augmented Reality Conference: Don’t Augment Reality, Decimate It

“More than augmented reality, I want customized reality.”

— Will Wright, creator of Sim City and The Sims, speaking at the Augmented World Expo Jun. 4

At the Augmented World Expo this week in Santa Clara, Calif., the augmented reality industry is out in force showing off how technology can be layered over the real world rather than living only on a screen.

The speeches and demos include billboards that come to life when viewed through a smartphone camera, wearable Google Glass-esque computers that project apps onto the real world and hanging projectors that let you tap on virtual objects on a normal table, or even see where your next pool shot is going to go.

20130604-144906.jpgBut maybe that’s the wrong way to think about augmented reality, said Will Wright. Speaking as an outsider who’s very interested in AR, the creator of Sim City and The Sims delivered a funny and fast-paced keynote address on the first day of the conference. His argument: We already have TMI — that’s “too much information,” for those of you over 60 — and adding more information isn’t necessarily the answer.

Wright characterized AR as having great potential, but that current offerings feel like solutions searching for problems to solve. From his perspective, he said, the goal should be to turn “actual reality … into entertainment” rather than, for example, projecting a 3-D zombie character on top of the world.

He speculated that most of what humans call “intelligence” is really just the brain’s ability to filter irrelevance out of the constant barrage of information it receives every second.

“Rather than trying to augment reality, maybe the future is decimated reality,” he said.

By “decimated reality,” Wright means technology that can do even more filtering than the brain already does automatically, and thereby show less information, not more. So, car commuters might have a filter between themselves and the road that blocks out all road signs except the ones that matter to them.

More humorously, Wright pitched the Amish as perfect beta testers for decimated reality, since they’re well practiced in subtracting from the technology available to them. He showed a crudely photoshopped picture of an Amish person wearing (not actually available) glasses that replace a modern, technological city with a simpler black-and-white town.

Amish glasses are among the sillier ideas being batted about in the AR industry — and that’s saying something. But Wright’s point, and something that other speakers and exhibitors at this conference have echoed, is that the currently limited technology need not be undercut by ambitions that pass for “realistic” today.

Those sort of ambitions, he said, also colored the pitches of Alexander Graham Bell, who predicted more than a century ago that, one day, there would be a telephone in “every major town” in America.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus