Getting Ahead of the Virtual Wild West

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

Tim Bettridge

Senior Product Designer

The necessity for foresight in spatial computing

We’ve come a long way since the days of sending ye ol’ smoke signals to connect with one another across vast distances. From carrier pigeons to movable type, telegrams to radio waves, telecommunications have fundamentally changed our society—socially, culturally, and politically. With the internet, we’ve made leaps and bounds in being able to interface with those near and far, whether it’s shooting a Slack message to a colleague at work or organizing a protest overseas. With each telecommunication milestone, we’ve unleashed consequences—both desirable and undesirable, anticipated and not. We’ve seen the Gutenberg printing press introduce criticisms and alternative interpretations to Catholicism, and social media giving rise to the Arab Spring.

And now we stand on the edge of another mighty shift in telecommunications: spatial computing. This significant technological advancement means that soon we will no longer feel bound by the physical spaces that have previously restricted our ability to connect and share. Soon, we will be able to be wherever we want, with whomever we want—and even create spaces that suit our every whim. As was recently announced at the Oculus Connect Keynote, Facebook Horizon plans to give us this sort of social VR world—one where we can explore, create and connect beyond what we thought possible.

These are exciting times. Unimaginable times, really, for an 1847 Alexander Graham Bell—or even a 2004 Mark Zuckerberg. 

But these are also unstable times, with political turmoil as a result of rampant misinformation and the threat of rampant unemployment due to advances in automation. 

These unstable times  make this exactly the time when we need to stop, think, and understand the possible, plausible, and probable applications and potential misuses of spatial computing. We need to be proactive, not reactive to technological shifts as they happen.

In order to unpack the future of spatial computing, we need to understand the levers that shape telecommunication experiences. This first lever is social; throughout history, telecommunications have allowed for two different types of social networks to flourish. These networks are either global—think universal, large structures that are regulated, like Canada Post or Twitter—or local community networks—networks that reside within global social networks.

The distinction between local and global social networks is not unlike the makeup of sociological ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ social groups. Secondary groups are defined by formal and institutional relationships, where the emotional ties are weaker; and primary groups are defined by their intimate and lasting relationships1.

To help differentiate these two network types it helps to unpack them and understand how they relate to each other. Global social networks are similar to offline social networks. We all have primary social groups that we speak to and see on a regular basis. These often include friends, acquaintances, peers and coworkers. Global social networks are expansive networks, individually curated to revolve around a group of people you’ve already met and have an existing connection with, this would be your ‘Friend List’ so to speak. These networks are highly personal and unique. They are often loosely knit, and focused centrally on the central hub.  

Local community networks form out of groups of people from all different backgrounds and demographics. People join online communities for many different reasons – often seeking an in-group connection with others who share a preference for similar interests or lifestyles. Where global social networks can be highly curated, Local Community Networks are not individually curated beyond the decision to partake in them. They closer reflect real world communities where the network is made primarily through locality, such as in a neighbourhood, religious group, educational institution or workplace. In our contemporary networked society this locality extends beyond geographic spatial locality and into the new spatial realities we are building. There are many benefits of community networks including the tightly knit and interconnected nature of their relationships which can help to foster interpersonal support and a sense of belonging. A spectrum exists between global social networks and local community networks, from those that are truly all-encompassing, to ones that are hidden out of site and on the periphery.

“Apple recognized what the earliest users of the printing press did: people have a profound desire to form sub-communities around like-minded people, traditional powers be damned…
Jeremy Arnold, Quora

“Just as the formation of newspapers allowed people to identify and communicate
with those who shared like religious and political values, smartphones allow us to easily find and connect with people who’ll co-explore facets of identity that our structured environments often ignore or repress…
Jeremy Arnold, Quora

“Facebook didn’t build these groups. We built them in spite of Facebook. We built them because of what Facebook had become… they are affinity groups — either geographically or culturally — and when a group gets too big, or too broad, it’ll divide itself into something that feels more intimate”
Anne Helen Peterson, BuzzFeed News

“Before the internet, people worked harder to find affinity groups, but they still found them — even if it meant placing ads in esoteric trade magazines and becoming pen pals, or showing up for Toastmasters, or quilting club, or genealogy class all by yourself.”
Anne Helen Peterson, BuzzFeed News

The second lever at play is spatial. Space is relationally defined; it acquires meaning and sense only when related to other concepts2. Acclaimed French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre asserts that there are three types of space, the first being ‘first space’ or spatial practice, how we come to define space physically through our movements within it; ‘second space’ or representations of space, which refers to how we define space conceptually through inventing new spaces—maps, plans, models, and designs; and lastly, ‘third space’ or representational space, when space is defined through overlays on our environment—colourful flags hung from balconies, or murals painted derelict buildings—that imbue the space with symbolic meaning. 

Spatial Practice, Representations of space, vs. Representational space

Lefebvre attested that the lines between these types of spatial understanding are not set in stone. With technological advancements in telecommunications, these types of spaces have become less and less distinct and are now a spectrum that defines spaces—one that moves from the real (first space) to the virtual (second space), with augmented spaces (third space) giving meaning to everything in between. 

Thinking about spatial computing through this spectrum is key in understanding that the tech community’s AR versus VR battle is rather pointless. If you browse any tech publishing platform today it’s clear that the community is choosing tribes and placing bets as to which Extended Reality (XR) technology will succeed. From the fervent AR-enthusiasts (the dedicated Pokemon Go-ers, and even Tim Cook’s passionate cries) to those sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the VR “just-around-the-corner” era (brought on in large part by the scrappy kickstarter Palmer Lucky’s 2012 launch of the DK1 Oculus Rift, which introduced feasibility and affordability in VR headsets). However, pitting AR against VR only reinforces the belief that these are distinctive ways of understanding space, when really, augmentation places the use of space on a spectrum between the two extremes.

These two levers—social and spatial—create a matrix wherein applications of telecommunication technologies can be mapped. Once we start to map out these applications, we can better understand our collective futures, and identify any opportunities to shift, or reach for those futures. This “Social-Spatial” Matrix is a tool that product builders need to start understanding, and using now as it relates to what they are building. We can’t wait for spatial computing to unfold around us. We need to be proactive about how we are designing and implementing reconstructions of our very reality—lest we end up in a virtual wild west.

References

  1. Macionis, Gerber; John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.
  2. Mazúr, E. & Urbánek, J. GeoJournal (1983) 7: 139. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00185159
  3. DRAKOPOULOU, Sophia. Pixels, bits and urban space: Observing the intersection of the space of information with urban space in augmented reality smartphone applications and peripheral vision displays. First Monday, [S.l.], nov. 2013. ISSN 13960466. Available at <https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4965/3795>. Date accessed: 13 aug. 2019. doi:https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v18i11.4965.

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