RL (Real Life) and Cyberspace Boundaries Get Blurrier

By Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Creative Officer and Professor of the Practice at the University of Baltimore

If 2013 is going to be the year that the traditional computer/keyboard/mouse setup starts fading away, it may represent the beginning of a much bigger trend: the blurring together of “Real Life” with Cyberspace.

For years now computers have been getting smaller as they’ve gotten faster, more powerful, and able to hold more stuff. The clunky, industrial-looking “desktop” (more like “boat anchor”) boxes of the past have been slowly replaced by sleek devices that have been designed to look more like furniture (or high end consumer electronics) than “computing” devices. At the same time computing power has migrated from desk-bound machines to portable devices (laptops) and true carry-anywhere mobile devices (tablets and smartphones). The “computer” --as most of us born before the Internet understand it-- has been disappearing.

But we’re not just talking form-factor here. As computers have faded into our everyday lives to the point of ubiquity, what they allow us to do—communicate via the Internet and manipulate digital information—has also moved far beyond the desktop and into nearly every corner of our lives. We can get information anywhere and anytime we want and the fact that most information (including “traditional” one-way broadcast-based information such as television and radio) is digital means that we can get it on just about any device we want.

The result has been the blurring of the boundaries between “real life” (the analog world) and “cyberspace” (the digital world). It’s been happening for awhile now, but 2013 is when the lines between what’s “online” and “offline” really start to get blurry.

Probably one of the most obvious examples of this is the much-hyped Google Glass Project which will allow us – using internet-connected “glasses” that can project information onto the “real world” – to become virtual information superheroes. Look at a building and the Glass will be able to overlay information about its occupants and even allow you to call them through the glasses using a cellular phone link and a virtual online directory. Run into someone you vaguely remember at a party and Google’s Glasses will allow you to pull up information about them from their online profiles and virtually project above their head so you can read it as you make small talk. Just imagine how effective a Glass-equipped Admissions counselor could be or the impact you’d have on prospective students who could take self-guided campus tours using Google Glass rigs you’ve supplied them when they come to visit!

But Google Glass isn’t the only Augmented Reality device that is slated to be released (possibly) late in 2013. Microsoft got into the game this year when they filed a patent for augmented reality glasses that many believe will be paired with the next generation Xbox (tentatively dubbed “Xbox720”). Based on leaked design documents (and a lot of online analysis/rumor/conjecture), the Xbox 720’s main goal is to break down the wall between gamers and the games they play using a combination of augmented reality glasses and a beefed-up motion capture and detection system dubbed “Kinect 2.0.”

For those of you who can’t wait for Google Glass (or may not want to pay the expected $650+ pricetag), you can get a taste of AR today by firing up an app on your smartphone. Junaio and Layar are good intros to the technology with both companies offering a huge range of customer-created content to choose from. And while most of the content from the “big guys” of AR is pretty serious and/or practical stuff, there have been a few demos of some really interesting tablet or smartphone-based AR gaming apps. While Angry Birds AR hasn’t been released yet (doh!), it shows how a game that we’re all familiar with – sometimes too familiar with—can be transformed when it’s overlaid on the “real world.” If you prefer virtual versions of more familiar games, JengAR lets you get your Jenga fix without having to spend half your day cleaning up fallen blocks. Finally, if you want to make every day “take your kid to work day,” AR Baby lets you project and “play with” a cute virtual baby right on your desktop.

But while Cyberspace has been creeping into the real-world via augmented reality, another big trend that’s going to be huge in 2013 is the explosion in 3D capture and printing technology. These technologies – available for decades but only recently made affordable to consumers – allow designers to output 3D models as actual, physical objects. However, most are limited to a single material (usually ABS plastic) and quality is often directly related to the cost of the printer. And while it’s not talked about much in the hype surrounding 3D printing, as people who’ve been experimenting with them for the past year, we can tell you that these devices are a bit touchy and take a fair amount of technical (both computer and mechanical) skill to consistently output good quality objects. But that’s today: by the end of 2013, 3D printers will be getting close to ready for Prime Time, but we’re predicting that it’s going to be at least another year or two past 2013 before they start to become common devices in the homes of non-techie/non-DIY folk. Today we’re basically at the stage where computers were in the early 80’s. Don’t think iMac…think Apple ][+ or IBM PC when you think 3D printing.

However, developments in this field are moving along pretty rapidly. Reasonably-priced multi-material printers (such as the Object260 and Polyjet that allow the automated creation of objects using 2 or more materials are starting to come on the scene, paving the way for the in-home production of true consumer products. Other industries, inspired by the “desktop manufacturing” movement spurred by 3D printing are getting into the action as well with everything from “printers” that generate pharmaceuticals on demand all the way to automated “house printers” that can “print” a house in about a day, even laying down the wiring and plumbing as they go. Cool stuff. But if you want an even more in-depth look at the future of 3D printing technology, check out this video of a talk by Scott Summit of Bespoke Innovations and prepare to be amazed.

2012 has also seen a huge explosion in software that allows people to capture the “real world” using mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) so that it can be manipulated as a digital object (and perhaps even duplicated using a 3D printer). Software giant Autodesk has been one of the leaders in this field, releasing a whole suite of mobile apps that allow you to create 3D models simply by taking digital pictures. But you don’t have to spend your time only capturing figurines and buildings…you can capture your face for free using the TriDimensional iPhone app to instantly turn your mug into a 3D model suitable for printing.

Everywhere you turn in 2013, you’ll be sure to see more and more examples of how wireless digital technology, mobile computing devices, and intelligent software will continue to merge your “real world” with the one online. Mobile Life Assistants like Grokr and Google Now: that automatically look up information for you on your smartphone based on criteria such as your location, daily routine, and time of day will continue to become more common and built into more and more apps (and perhaps even objects like cars and home security systems) as the Internet of Things continues to grow.