Better Choices Through Technology

Posted by Cliff Kuang

Can augmented reality technology finally make it easy to do the right thing?

Last week was huge for a young technology called "augmented reality"-and that's important even if you're not a nerd, because it should revolutionize the way we approach social causes. Sure, many current examples of augmented reality are trivial, but hear me out.Augmented reality allows you to see, in real time, data about your surroundings. It's different from having the internet on your phone-you don't actually have to look anything up, and you don't actually have to know exactly what you're looking for. Augmented reality is more like a having a sixth sense-and a seventh and eighth sense-that makes data a natural, passive part of how you see the world.So how does this work? Last week, a Dutch company, SPRXmobile, introduced the first-ever augmented-reality browser platform for a smartphone. It's fairly simple to explain. The software uses two basic features found on smartphones-a compass, and a GPS system. From there, it knows exactly where you are-and, just as important, which direction your phone is pointing. And this is where things get interesting. Armed with that knowledge, SPRXmobile unveiled a rack of applications-including apps to find a nearby ATM, bar, or shoe store; figure out if a company nearby is hiring; identify houses around you that might be for sale; and even research the on-court action at Wimbledon. (Take a second to watch SPRXmobile's amazing demo video.) So far, the app is only for phones running the Android operating system but it's coming to the iPhone soon as well. (That's why it was so important that the newest model, the 3G S, included a compass.)This makes deep information about your surroundings available whenever you have your cell phone without you having to look anything up. When you let that possibility sink in, augmented reality's massive promise becomes clear. If you were to boil a number of social causes-from depleted fisheries to carbon reduction-the central problem is that getting the right information to consumers takes so much money and effort. And consumers themselves have to spend too much time translating that new information into action.With augmented reality you can download a program, and be presented with all of its stored wisdom just when that wisdom is relevant to what you're doing. It then becomes vastly easier to imagine social causes translating into individual action on a large scale-the effort to learn about those causes and about discern what you should drops enormously when you have a cellphone that does the sifting for you, at the exact time that you need it.Imagine the following scenarios. You're in a new city. You'd like to skip on a rental car, and save the cash and the carbon. So you use an app on your phone to find the low-carbon alternatives. It guides you from your current location to the nearest public transit option, letting you know exactly what the schedules are-and, if you're in a city with "smart" bus stops like Portland, even telling you, in real time, how far away the next bus is. You don't have to be tethered to the bus station, hoping that things are running on time.Or lets take another example: depleted fisheries. You walk into a fish restaurant. You point your phone at the door; it knows where you are, and it provides you with a list of fish that are the most environmentally friendly.That's just the beginning. Imagine you're commuting to work, but you don't have a car, and public transit isn't an option out where you live. You boot up an app that alerts others in your car-sharing network where you are, matches you with a ride, and leads you-and your potential ride-to a meet-up point. It may sound unreal, but this technology is already being developed by Avego, among others.Things really start to get nutty when you factor in another technology, QR codes. These function like barcodes that your cellphone can scan. You've already seen the codes popping up on shipping labels and such. Phones with QR-reading functionality will follow soon-in fact they're already common in Japan (of course). When you snap a picture of a QR code, the image directs your phone to download information set by the code's designer.What if all the food in your grocery store was marked with a QR code-you could compare the carbon footprints of two batches of produce. Builders could use specialized apps inside a Home Depot to figure out how materials choices might translate to energy savings.As I've written before, convenience is king when we're talking about making better transportation choices. But that also applies to any worthy cause, if it's ever to become truly mainstream.Personally, I've long been a pessimist about our ability to meet challenges like climate change. Augmented reality has me more optimistic than I've ever been. Granted, it still takes a baseline level of interest for someone to take the time to download an app for a social cause. But compare that effort with what you'd otherwise have to put in to get involved with an issue like fisheries. There's no contest. Augmented reality is the best chance we have to speed crucial information about our world to the people living in it.