Augmented Reality Will Be Awful

April 15, 2021

You slip into bed exhausted after a long day’s work and close your eyes. There’s a dance of light across your eyelids, pouring through the thin membrane of skin. You forgot to take off your Augmented Reality (AR) glasses. You crack open one eye. Another message from your boss. He’s suggesting a small tweak to your presentation for tomorrow. With a groan you sit up and open your eyes. This is reality now, you’re never offline. 

Most of us know what Virtual Reality is. Users wear immersive goggles with hand controllers that put them in a virtual world. AR is different, it blends the real, physical world with digital images. Maybe you’re already familiar with Pokémon Go, or Amazon AR. With Amazon AR you can see if the furniture will fit in your living room through your phone.


These are mobile forms of AR. What’s coming next are glasses that you wear. 

AR glasses will superimpose the internet onto our vision. In some concept designs they’re contact lenses that project light directly onto the eyeball.
AR is a unique form of technology precisely because:

  • it understands where you are in physical space
  • it sees and recognizes things around you, 
  • it’s a layer to the world only you can see

There are many ways that AR will be beneficial, from engineers able to superimpose schematics over a machine, giving them xray vision; to entertainment where AR could bring video game aspects into real life board games, imagine a game of Risk with real battles played out on the table. 

Let’s take a look at a quick video Adobe put together previewing what AR could become 

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I love technology. I’m pumped about the Metaverse, virtual reality, the future of video games, and how technology will improve how we live, work, and play….

But I’ve got to get this off my chest. The AR that designers and technologists are previewing for us will not be all roses, it will be a dystopian nightmare that kills people. 

No exaggeration, I’ll show you how awful AR will be. 

Welcome to the hotel California

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Today, millions of people are addicted to their smartphones and the ever connected world. The pull of the phone is so strong that in the lull of conversation at the dinner table with my kids, I struggle to not pull out my phone for a quick glance at Twitter. That cheap dopamine hit just feels so good. 

What happens when we don’t even have to reach into our pocket, or look down? The Twitter feed is just always rolling in our peripheral vision? 

Oh there will be upsides, that’s why we’ll stick them on our faces. Handsfree, safer, better for our neck pain and posture. 

But the tradeoff will be huge. We’ve already opened the door to an always-on, ever connected world, and we’re paying the price with increased stress, cortisol, weight-gain, and lack of sleep

We didn't evolve for this. 

For cavemen stress was acute and in spurts - vigilance while on a hunt - not chronic. No caveman was worrying all day about how many retweets his latest thread got or checking email late at night for work tomorrow. AR will hijack that hard wired vigilance and sell us on the connected convenience, novelty, and experiences. 

If smartphones opened the ever connected door, AR will knock down the house and build an 8 lane freeway into our brains in its place. 

We’ll pay with not just lost intimacy, but stress, weight-gain, and increased heart attacks, leading to early deaths.

The Business of AR

All this amazing technology won’t come free. There will be a price for the glasses, and there will be a price for apps. Will consumers be willing to pay the true price, or will we rely on mobile-models in AR. Let’s explore a few mobile models and see just how much worse they’d be in AR.

Free, but ad supported

In this model, consumers get free AR tech but at the cost of seeing ads. The tech companies would sell you on the cost, free, and that the ads would be contextual and hyper-specialized to you. But do you really want google ads always on in your eyes?

Take a look at this video someone remixed of the old google glass promo video, but with ads. No thank you!

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Free, but you and your data are the product

In this model, it's like Facebook where it's free to use, but you are the product that's being sold, to advertisers, hedge funds, market research companies. 

Most people already give FB and Google access to their internet usage, but glasses will give tech companies a level of access to your personal life that you don’t even give to friends? Do you want tech companies to know what brand of toilet paper you use, because they’re in the bathroom with you? 

Freemium, free to start, but you’ll be upsold

The freemium model is pervasive in the tech world for good reason. It allows the consumer a certain amount of value from a given product as a taste, then some portion can pay for the full-access, premium version. The goal then is to hook you, get you addicted, and wanting more. 

Product managers have learned a lot in the past few decades about what motivates us, how addiction works in the human brain, they know how to get you coming back for more and more. With a computer or phone there’s a certain amount of friction. You have to pull open the app and then ignore the world for a moment as you use the app. 

What happens when there’s no friction? Those product managers just have direct access to your eyes? If you’re not paying for it, they’ll figure out every way to interject into your vision to get you to pay for their app. 

How do we keep this from ruining our lives?

What model will work best for our mental health within AR? Probably one where we pay for the device and pay a hefty price for each app. Maybe there’s another business model out there yet to be invented, but for now if you don’t want invasive ads or your most intimate moments sold to the highest bidder, you’ll need to pay a lot for AR. 

Most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with technology, and AR as currently thought of, will just exacerbate that. It’s why I really like VR more than AR, because VR is a separate world that you consciously decide to be in for a time. 

If AR works as well as we think it will, it will seamlessly integrate with your life, and you’ll depend on it more than you already do your phone. You won’t be able to take it off. 
People should engage deeply with technology and disengage deeply with technology. That’s the key problem with augmented reality, there's no disengagement.

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