Six Signals: Every atom is a bit and every bit is an atom

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This week’s signals look at the continuing collapse between digital and physical space, the real and unreal, human and machine. There are prognostications of the future “mirrorworld”, emerging interfaces for interacting in the spaces between digital and physical, and growing uncertainty around what is real or generated.

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1: Manipulating AR objects

Image of the litho device with the text "Litho is the input device for the real world."

The Litho controller is “like a set of miniature brass knuckles” — it is a hand-worn motion controller with an embedded trackpad, so it can support a combination of gesture, swipe, point, and tap. It primarily works with Apple’s AR Kit, though it was intended with the HoloLens in mind. Like some of the gestural controllers that have come before (Leap Motion, Myo), this may be a solution ahead of its time, but it does point to the potential need for new ways of interacting with digital objects if and when those objects become co-present in your physical space. My bet is that this kind of controller won’t really take off unless AR moves beyond the phone screen into some form of heads-up display.

The Litho controller is sci-fi jewelry for your iPhone’s AR apps

2: Hearables and augmented audio

Photo of wireless earbuds.
Photo by Howard Lawrence B on Unsplash

The growth of voice assistants (Siri, Alexa, etc.), the continuing trend of “more sensors everywhere”, and the increasing popularity of wearable tech means that our ears are the one of the next frontiers in wearable computing. “Hearables” describe in-ear devices that can incorporate everything from augmented audio to voice assistants to biometric tracking. We can see this technology emerging from multiple types of manufacturers with different audiences in mind: Massive tech companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon see the opportunity to embed some of their computing prowess into new kinds of devices. Headphone and audio manufacturers see the opportunity to provide new features to their audiophile audiences. And hearing aid companies see the potential for evolving assistive devices into augmenting devices.

The future is ear: Why “hearables” are finally tech’s next big thing

3: When our space contains multitudes

All of these emerging technologies point to the potential growth of what Kevin Kelly talks about in this week’s Wired as the “Mirrorworld”:

Everything connected to the internet will be connected to the mirrorworld. And anything connected to the mirrorworld will see and be seen by everything else in this interconnected environment. Watches will detect chairs; chairs will detect spreadsheets; glasses will detect watches, even under a sleeve; tablets will see the inside of a turbine; turbines will see workers around them.

This piece paints a sweeping picture of a future where the mirrorworld has come to fruition. Kelly is utopian and optimistic about it in the way that only someone who feels in control of technology rather than at the mercy of it can be. I don’t doubt that this is the ideal that people working on the requisite AR, AI, and computer vision technology are aiming for. But just like social media didn’t exactly accomplish the connected society that tech founders touted, we have to also imagine how this kind of future mirrorworld will break down or be used in problematic and exploitative ways.

AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld

4: The co-evolution of humanity and technology

Speaking of which, BBC Future has a great long read into how humans and technology evolve alongside each other, and our responsibility as those paths potentially diverge.

My belief is that, like most myths, the least interesting thing we can do with this story (the singularity) is take it literally. Instead, its force lies in the expression of a truth we are already living: the fact that clock and calendar time have less and less relevance to the events that matter in our world. The present influence of our technology upon the planet is almost obscenely consequential – and what’s potentially tragic is the scale of the mismatch between the impact of our creations and our capacity to control them.

Technology in deep time

5: The creativity of context collapse

My colleague Megs Fulton recently pointed me to this excellent article on the Big Flat Now, which speaks to the ways in which the growing fluidity between digital and physical, past and present, low and high culture, have actually created a new kind of creative space in which to operate.

Product design has become a form of DJing — and DJing has become a form of product design. Contemporary art and luxury fashion have come to operate according to the same logic, sharing practitioners who glide freely between each field. Film, music, fashion, visual art and the marketing machines that support them have been compressed into a unified slime called “content.”

Welcome to the Big Flat Now

6: Playing with the boundary between the real and generated

Work with deep learning and neural networks in recent months has led to pretty astonishing leaps forward, where we now have models that allow machines to generate images, text, and video that are nearly indistinguishable from real ones. The text generation piece has a new wrinkle with the Open AI Institute study that was published this week. Researchers were so concerned about potential misuse that they only released a partial model with the study results.

While there are many real reasons to be alarmed by these advances, this week has seen a number of projects that play with those increasingly blurry boundaries, including Which Face is Real?, This Person Does Not Exist, and of course (because it’s the internet), This Cat Does Not Exist.

One ridiculous thing

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