Augmentation: Not Your Father’s Nip Tuck

Ok, you’ve been patient with me and I appreciate it. I admit to straying a bit from the sub-title of my blog “Technology Observations…” for the past 2-3 months. A better sub-title for recent posts would be a “technologist’s observations about community and creativity.”

But, it’s time to return to the core. So, if you have enjoyed the community and creativity posts, then mosey on over to the blog at LifetimeValue(dot)Me. This is the venture where I’ll continue writing about tools, services, and examples for making strategic investments in your communities.

Back to the subject at hand, I want to offer updates to three different but related posts in “The BroadBrush Update” over the past year. I believe them related because they all describe some aspect of a future, augmented human capacity. I’m a big believer in this augmentation trend, because of the natural human desire we all possess to extend our healthy lives as long as reasonably possible.

The first update concerns exoskeletons, which I wrote about in a post a year ago entitled “Grandpa Ironman.”  The update is the announcement of two Honda products based on technology the company invented with work on its Asimo line of robots. The two products are the Stride Management Assist and the Bodyweight Support Assist, the latter demonstrated in the video below.

At first glance the cartoonish nature of the video and the unwieldy nature of the device itself may make it hard to be taken seriously. But the potential freedom that such a device can provide people with the need for a boost in leg strength should be taken very seriously. This comment I found on a technology hub where the Honda devices were being discussed says it all:

I am 82 years old and totally healthy except my legs are getting weak and I have difficulty getting up the stairs. I live alone and I do not want to move, and this looks like an ideal solution. Where can I get one and how much?

The second update concerns vision systems. In a post I wrote entitled “Adventures in Reality,” I speculated about GPS-enabled mobile phones, using their on-board cameras, that could provide nearly zero-latency data streams of a person’s surroundings. No more need for speculation – it’s already here.

A recent issue of Time magazine brought to attention Raimo van der Klein, one of a trio of Dutch inventors who created Layar, the augmented reality browser and company of the same name (in the photo at the beginning of this post).  The browser, as well as a growing host of “layers” for Layar are available free on the iPhone. Check them out.

The third update is related to advances in materials. I wrote a post earlier this year on “Bio-printing” in which I talked about the ability to print atomic-sized transistors and even human tissue.

Recently, I ran across a video of a venture called Fabrican, which is a sprayable fabric created by particle engineer Paul Luckham and fashion designer Manel Torres. Below is a video of the fabric being created on a female model.

While this update may stretch the imagination the most in terms of practical implications, of the three updates I’ve shared, don’t judge too fast. Just start thinking about the ability to augment the sprayable materials with various pharmaceutical and health treatments, and you can quickly begin to imagine the life-extending possibilities of such a technology.

Adventures in Reality

Anyone who has followed any of my writing knows that I’m fascinated by the man-machine continuum and especially the fluidity of technology, as we use it in physical lives, virtual worlds, and augmented realities.

Not a day goes by where there isn’t something new that further informs and fills in the gaps of this physical-augmented-virtual continuum. I’ll pull one item of interest from each of these realities.

monolith-from-WiredFirst, physical reality. One of the things I totally dig about the ubiquity of microprocessors, especially in increasingly “smarter” mobile phones, is the ability to have them real-time “crunch” data that enriches your life – your problem-solving, your choice-making, and your other actions – when and where you need it.

A number of good examples were showcased at a Government 2.0 Expo/Summit earlier this fall that I’ve written about. One that I regularly cite, because we’ve all been affected by it, is a public safety mobile app. Called “Are You Safe?”, this app actually provides a visual gauge that mashes together localized crime data and your GPS-detected position, giving you a real-time indicator of crime.

While one could argue this being a “leading” or “trailing” indicator, nonetheless I’m fascinated by the concept. Just think of the other real-time indicators that one could receive by crunching data sets: climate change/environmental indicators, infectious disease monitors, etc.

Second, augmented reality. I read about a little DIY video off of Slashdot that caught my eye, featuring the provocative headline of building your own virtual reality goggles using an Android-enabled phone. Now, the video is cute, thought not something I would take the time to do, kind of in the spirit of the popular Nintendo Wii video that was the rage two Christmas seasons ago, when an engineer showed how you could reverse the motion tracker that comes with your Wii system to create immersive, 3D games.

But, what I found more intriguing (as usual) were the comments in the slashdot commentary. I especially found this one to be immensely intriguing: “What would actually involve a bit of innovation is if someone hooked up those glasses to, say, a pocket beagleboard or similar device capable of video output, and ported/hacked Google Street View to output stereo information…”  Think about that for a moment: you’ve just created a relatively low-cost device that enables a blind person to “see” the precise details of their surroundings, real time!  Now that is life altering augmented reality.

Third, virtual reality. For this one, I actually want to draw attention to the work of Aric Sigman ( Sigman, Baroness Susan Greenfield, and others have been documenting the consequences of a sustained, increased participation in highly immersive virtual worlds and commensurate decreased “physical” world participation. To quote from Sigman’s article “Well Connected” in the February issue of Biologist earlier this year:  “While the precise mechanisms underlying the association between social connection, morbidity and mortality continue to be investigated, it is clear that this is a growing public health issue for all industrialised countries.”

Hear, hear.  My recent personal reflection on how too many people emphasize the “media” part of “social media” and don’t appreciate enough the importance of the “social” – especially the physical, human contact aspect of social – is an affirming data point of one.  Now, let me hear from you!

Augmented reality; litigated virtuality

I am fascinated by the progressive blurring of the physical and virtual worlds. Not to veer off into metaphysics and spirituality, but as cognitive science and computing technology advance, we take baby steps closer everyday to the Matrix.

Until then, new devices, development tools, and applications are rapidly coming to market that allow us to operate with a conscious duality in our physical and virtual worlds. Addressing the virtual of these dual worlds, not long ago I posted about the amount of activity and funding this year for development platforms and virtual environments in “Talk to the (Digital) Hand.”

Likewise, at the Austin Game Developer’s conference last week, I took a moment to mingle at the closing party and got a brief primer of the story of BigWorld Technology, which is a turnkey platform provider for virtual world and MMOG creators. While the U.S. matters, they are seeing phenomenal upside in Asia-Pacific markets. Expect this investment activity to continue, becoming more and more mainstream focused.

A few additional observations of note:

First, at the O’Reilly Government 2.0 Summit and Expo, one of the presenters, Rob Rhyne, spoke on the subject of “mobile augmented reality for local government.” Perhaps light on details, but you can get a feel for his talking points in the presentation deck.

In a nutshell, imagine if you could see computer-generated information overpaying what you are physically experiencing (seeing, hearing, etc.), that is driven by data about your surroundings. An example might be viewing the outside of a skyscraper, via your iPhone display, and, as you move it around, seeing labels geospatially appear on the building indicating where the coffee shops, pharmacies, and shipping locations are.

SexGen RrugAt nGenera, our Wikinomics team has been writing about augmented reality for more than a year. And, we agree with Rob that civic applications for augmented reality have the potential to really highlight the power of Gov 2.0.

Meanwhile, the complexities of the real world continue to seep into the virtual world. It was intriguing to recently read about the makers of Second Life – Linden Lab – being targeted in a sex-code lawsuit in federal court. The crux of the lawsuit is that it claims Linden looks the other way, while virtual residents rip off the plaintiff’s “SexGen” product line, which enables consenting avatars to engage in virtual sex acts.

According to the Wired story, the lawsuit appears to mark the first time Linden Lab operators been sued by an in-world (i.e., Second Life) merchant for alleged real-world copyright and trademark infringement. There’s real money at stake here, when you consider that Second Life reported resident-to-resident purchases of $120 million in Q1 2009 alone (!), with Piper Jaffrey predicting purchases to exceed $600 million for the year.

As I said at the outset, I think it will be fascinating to see how these many, different developments play out and how our legal, moral, and civic institutions respond and perhaps (wishful thinking) anticipate an existence where our real and virtual selves are at work and play, simultaneously, 24 x 7.