My reality, or yours?

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My reality, or yours?

The Vision Pro, both a technical marvel and source of endless memes, was introduced as Apple’s “first product you look through, not at.” 

This new interface you “look through” appears consistently across a series of indoor, largely private environments, its 2D windows hovering in space. This versatility makes the headset more or less environmentally-blind: it doesn’t adapt to its context beyond casting shadows, adjusting for ambient brightness, or acknowledging someone entering your field of view. 

However, Apple is likely to have plans to move towards more environmental-responsiveness, given the 3D mapping capabilities built into the headset and the trajectory of other headsets in the industry. But for the moment it’s unclear how this technology will evolve to fit the more complex spaces that we share with others. The Vision Pro is depicted as a solitary experience: there is no shared AR layer between headsets. So what happens when we take the Vision Pro — or some similar headset of the future — outside, with others?

While there is plenty to be said about the dorkiness of wearing ski goggles “imagined by Denis Villeneuve” in public, let’s assume for argument’s sake that Apple does what Apple does best: iterates well and transforms an alien concept into another device that becomes a seamless extension of ourselves. Will our personalized augmented vision be ported along with us wherever we go, filling space even when it’s not entirely ours? Or will we get to look through a shared reality layer that’s anchored in public space, along with others? The path we take here will determine whether we share a reality or whether we move through space in a world of our own.

A brief history: the filter bubble

The language of looking at reality through something recalls a now-familiar term coined back in 2011 by Ethan Parisier: “filter bubble.” Filter bubbles, put simply, in a 2018 article, are created by “internet companies that determine what we see by monitoring what we have clicked on in the past and giving us more of the same.” For the most extreme rendition of the filter bubble, we can look to TikTok, which has masterfully determined what exactly each user wants to look at to the point of unprecedented addiction. But at its most basic and least harmful, filter bubbles find their purpose as mechanisms for relevance sorting: they take something endless (digital information) and render it digestible to something finite (your attention).

Filter bubbles meet augmented reality

Much like our new headset, filters are something you look through. To extend the analogy: if we take AR outside and into the public sphere, contextual AR could do to the real world what newsfeeds did to the internet. 

When you look at it that way, the stakes suddenly seem high. We’ve seen what filter bubbles have done to our politics: we live in a more divided and polarized America than ever before, and that’s when these information ecosystems have been contained to newsfeeds that we can opt in and out of at any given time. But because AR by definition affects the experience of reality itself, splintering off into our own digital experiences of that reality starts to look a lot like filter bubbles playing out IRL. What happens when our personal information worlds, our filter bubbles, literally color the way we perceive the world around us — more than they already have?

AirPods as a preview of what’s to come

We’ve caught a glimpse of what this might feel like with the popularization of AirPods, which let you live in an aural world of your own while walking through the visual world around you with others. Especially with the state of noise cancellation technology, we’re more or less able to totally customize our soundscape — selecting the song, podcast, or audiobook that suits our moment and mood.

I’ve already started to feel my own addiction to this — what Haley Nahman described as “vibe-engineering”— in which I stand in as the DJ of my own life and bypass the sounds of the world around me in favor of the sounds of my choosing. There’s a certain practicality of this living in New York—the subway is loud, men catcall, sirens are everywhere—but there’s also an obvious sacrifice to it. Sometimes when I look around at everyone plugged in in my subway car, my gaze lands on someone with naked ears who is present for every train performer and shriek of the train on the track. When I see them I think of an essay I read a while back from an older neighborhood member who shared something to the effect of, “There are people around, but no one is here anymore.” They didn’t mean “here” in the literal sense — the neighborhood was as crowded as ever. They just meant that everyone was in their own world.

In his essay on the rise of AirPods, Always In, Drew Austin acknowledges that, “Airpods express a more complete embrace of our simultaneous existence in physical and digital space,” and by doing so, “facilitate a deeper integration, an ‘always in’ existence that we need never interrupt by looking down at a screen.” In Monday’s WWDC, Apple revealed “adaptive audio,” in which someone talking to you automatically activates transparency, such that you truly never need to take out your AirPods. This both eliminates the awkward gesture of rushing to rip out your airpods while simultaneously making you one of those people that talks to people with your AirPods in :( But at this rate who’s to say how long that lasts as a faux pas.

This new design, much like the adaptive immersion that responds when someone appears near you while you’re in the Vision Pro, is our first look at Apple mediating our relationship with what is “worth” perceiving in the real world. 

The risk of the filter bubble 2.0

In this sense AirPods are our first toe dip into the world of digitally filtering and altering our immediate sensory experience of the world. As they continue to gain popularity, it seems that, when the choice is left up to the individual, we often choose to turn in towards ourselves and deeper into our devices rather than turning outwards to the public. As mentioned earlier, I think this reaction is understandable (many soundscapes are abrasive), but it also raises interesting questions when applied to the mechanisms of vision.

While our headphones bubble us to a certain extent, we are visual creatures first, so something more fundamental is at stake when we visually bubble our experiences. If everyone retreats into their walled gardens of vision, we risk a deeply fractured reality, with no consistent context to reference and connect in. We’ve already seen a preview of what this could devolve into with TikTok allocating different experiences to different populations, for example “run[ning] a ‘healthier’ version of its app domestically than which it 'exports' to the rest of the world.” Might there be augmented worlds of unequal quality depending on where you are from or what experiences you can pay for? Could people sharing space but living in entirely distinct augmented realities peacefully coexist? If not, might distinct societies develop around their respective augmented worlds? 

Can these scenarios be avoided?

Fortunately, there’s no AR headset strapped to our face out in the world (yet), so we have (some) time to work out how we might steer clear of some of the thornier futures. For the time being, it seems the most hopeful action we can take to move us away from these more dystopian scenarios is to build shared augmented experiences grounded in the spaces we inhabit together. I’m hopeful we can find a way to share a flexible augmented world together, rather than retreat farther into our own personal augmented realities. But critically, in order for this to happen, we’ll have to build a digital layer of experiences and information that people are actually interested in taking part in. 

As my friend Michael Bass put it so eloquently in his thesis Sharing an Extended Reality: AR/VR Journalism and Public Spheres, “AR can be the restorer of digital content to its proper context, organized in a way that foregrounds public relevance and that showcases a plurality of perspectives. Spatial computing can be the rehabilitator of time and location in everyday consciousness.” In other words, bringing persistent digital content into shared spaces for us to discover in AR can be fundamentally grounding and useful. 

There are so many truly exciting experiments happening in this space, but, in the spirit of keeping things local, I’ll share a couple ongoing projects I’ve recently discovered in my reality of New York: 

In the beloved Elizabeth Street Garden, The French artist JR recently launched the AR app JR Reality with the help of Niantic and Superblue, which allows anyone with a smartphone to contribute to murals of faces and personal stories to geotagged locations throughout their city, creating a sense of shared identity and narrative that captures “the meaning that places in their communities hold for them.” In a similar spirit,, which I was introduced to in McCarren Park, aspires to “recreate [the] urban experience” and transform cities into canvases with blockchain-enabled, geolocated AR that persists across all mobile devices. Both projects, grounded in this spirit of the collaborative and the local, have me excited to share a virtual layer with others. 

Their projects have me dreaming up all sorts of futures. What if there were hyper-local collaborative radio stations enabled by Spotify, and your train conductor could DJ your train ride? What if Brooklyn’s Greenest Block competition (a self-explanatory gardening competition) was mediated by AR, and your block was transformed into a scavenger hunt, calling out spots in need of greenery and sending you on missions to the supplies you need? What if you could hide digital notes, and our friends could only unlock them once they reached a very specific location? 

Rather than try to improve some of the more stubborn parts of the built environment – say, the actual soundscape of the New York subway system – contextual AR opens up an exciting opportunity to re-enrich public space digitally, which might be a more attainable hill to climb.