September 2016

Volume 31 Number 9

[Editor's Note]

Our Virtual Future

By Michael Desmond | September 2016

Michael DesmondPokemon Go is destroying our civilization. People are falling off cliffs (, ramming police cars (, driving into trees ( and even getting stuck in trees (—all in pursuit of little virtual creatures that can only be found within the confines of a smartphone display.

You might call this kind of behavior madness. I call it the future.

As ever, past is prologue. From the moment the first Sony Walkman user clapped a pair of foam earphones on his head only to look up a minute later to find an angry parent trying to get his attention, this was inevitable. We have over the decades retreated from our environments. Portable cassette and, later, MP3 players isolated us from our surroundings, before smartphones gave us the ability to interact beyond them. As MSDN Magazine columnist David Platt observed in his February 2012 Don’t Get Me Started column, “as technology closes the distance between people around the world, it simultaneously creates distance between people in close proximity” (

In a sense, Pokemon Go, and augmented reality in general, is closing the loop on this trend, returning users to manipulated versions of their local environments. Pokemon Go players are blundering into physical objects because they are chasing things that are not there. They are at once present and removed, assuming a quantum state that is at odds with our Newtonian understanding of the social world.

We’ll learn to manage the dichotomy, eventually. Tim Kulp is the author of this month’s feature article, “Building Virtual Reality Applications.” He says virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VAMR) applications will require the same process of societal integration that occurred with Walkmans and mobile phones, as it did with televisions, radios and cars before that.

“Is it polite to be on the phone while checking out at the grocery store? These are things we didn’t just know. We learned over time,” Kulp says. “VAMR is the same. Is it OK to walk into a board room meeting wearing a HoloLens? Social norms need to be figured out, and to do that we first need to challenge those norms.”

There’s work to be done yet. Kulp says the tools and platforms to enable compelling VAMR applications must mature and proliferate. Most important, the sector needs apps that matter.

“I think one of the challenges that technologists often face is the belief that technology is about building cool things that make life better,” Kulp says. “In reality, technology is about society, change and giving new tools to people to do things. When we forget about the social element of technology, we don’t build anything useful. One challenge to VAMR right now is the ‘figuring out’ of its place in society.”

Pokemon Go is an early, clumsy expression of our coming augmented, social future. I look forward to seeing where these first, halting steps take us.

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.

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