A seismic technological shift on par with the arrival of the smartphone is about to be upon us. At least, that’s what the luminaries of Silicon Valley are saying. This month, both Google and Apple are releasing software that will bring augmentedreality apps to tens of millions of smartphones and tablets (see Technology). Augmented reality projects digital objects into the real world—if you’re older than 35, think the display from The Terminator; if you’re younger, think Pokémon Go. You might believe you have no need for such whimsies, but the technology is going to be everywhere, and available on the screen you already have in your pocket. Fairly soon, you might start your morning by picking up your phone and seeing a sky on the ceiling indicating the day’s weather. Restaurants will display digital entrees on plates to help indecisive diners. Kids will be mesmerized as The Very Hungry Caterpillar chews through virtual snacks across their bedspreads.
Augmented reality has the potential to be entertaining and even helpful. But it also clearly has the capacity to further divide and isolate us, as people customize their interactions with the real world. Imagine walking down a street seeing thumbs up signs hovering over the doors of recommended restaurants, or a digital rainbow superimposed on the sky. Meanwhile, the game- playing guy next to you might be watching zombies stagger down the sidewalk. Techies say it won’t be long before virtual objects even begin to replace real-life ones. “Think about how many of the things around us don’t actually need to be physical,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said this spring. “Instead of a $500 TV sitting in front of us, what’s to keep us from one day having it be a $1 app?” Watching this technology take hold will be exciting—and unsettling. Many Americans are already convinced they are living in a different reality from that of their fellow citizens. Pretty soon, they might be.