Skip to main content Redeem Tomorrow
I used to be excited about the future. Let's bring that back.
About Hire me

Cyberspace: The case for Augmented Reality

In the 90’s, we over-used the term “cyberspace.”

We needed something to explain the increasing incursion of the digital world into our everyday reality. Computers and the internet were becoming more central to our lives, and in the process, becoming a destination.

We needed a phrase to describe the abstract plane of existence that could stitch together far-flung computer systems, and their associated humans. If we were “going online,” where exactly would we arrive?

It was cyberspace.

As time went on, the term grew passé. The internet went from curiosity to compulsion to mundane component of everyday life. “Cyberspace” was an artifact of a more naive time, and we rolled our eyes.

But today I want to argue that we need this word. We need it to understand the perils and opportunities of the future. We need it to understand the motivations of enormous corporations who are investing in the next stage of our explorations into the digital realm.

Cyberspace was here all along. We just stopped giving it a name.

Cyberspace, defined

Let’s start with the basics.

You and I were born in real space. It has fixed and stubborn rules. Gravitation, thermodynamics, chemistry, and perhaps most importantly, locality.

In real space, you are where you are, and cannot be anywhere else except by crossing all the places in between, which can take quite some time. Real space is governed by scarcity: you have one favorite shirt, unless through some miracle of prescience you grabbed a second one off the rack, and then you’d have to pay for both of them.

Cyberspace has different rules. Here’s the most important:

Information is physical.

The underlying substrate of cyberspace lives here in real space. Cyberspace emerges from a global mesh of computing devices. If one of those devices is unplugged or crashes its hard drive, then whatever components of cyberspace that computer is responsible for will blip out of existence. If the computer is slow, its rendition of cyberspace will be, too. Meanwhile, the fabric joining cyberspace must also be physical: electrical signals, pulses of light, or radio waves. It takes time for these signals to propagate. Nothing is instant, merely fast: nearly the speed of light.

Still, the speed of light is so much faster than our minds are equipped to perceive. This creates a functional illusion of non-locality in cyberspace.

In other words, you can be anywhere instantly.

In practice, there’s an asterisk. Even the speed of light adds up over time. If there are too many hops between you and your destination, you may start to perceive the physical distance between computers as a delay.

But overall, the effect of cyberspace is to collapse global distances. Through cyberspace, you and a team spread across continents can comfortably share the same information and resources. You can communicate in real time. The magic of the internet was, and remains, our ability to reach people and information anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, everything copies for basically free. Once again, the real space underpinnings show up here: you need a physical location that stores data. But with that requirement satisfied, everything can be copied at virtually no cost. Entire business revolutions were built on this exact premise.

That’s just the start, though.

Reefs of the imagination

Because you can create in cyberspace.

Through these information systems, we can create bubbles within cyberspace that are subject to rules we choose. Quake II, Fortnite, Twitter, World of Warcraft… all of these are places where the infinite plasma of cyberspace is sculpted by the imagination into reliable structures. We can enter these bubbles and share experiences with one another, creating memories, building relationships and honing skills.

In 2023, we are surrounded by vast reefs of the imagination built in cyberspace. They are games, social spaces, markets, and clubhouses.

Tens of millions of knowledge workers wake up every day to architect, design, build and maintain these structures. It’s a complex job.

Yet, every year it becomes a little easier. While literacy for the required topics expands, the complexity of the tools becomes more and more manageable.

Portals into cyberspace

Since the dawn of consumer computing, the screen has been a primary portal into cyberspace.

What began as a few thousand pixels has exploded into the millions on high-end displays. Display technology is of particular interest to gaming, which has often occupied the bleeding edge of cyberspace possibility. Gamers spend thousands of dollars for large, pixel-packed displays and the high-end video cards that can drive them. Rich detail is emphasized, but so is frame rate: the number images per second a simulation can push onto the screen. 60 frames per second was once the ideal, but now high end rigs shoot for 120.

Why go to this trouble? Because gamers are working to thin the barrier between real space and cyberspace.

This is the point where some find it easy to moralize about the virtues of real space over cyberspace. To declare these interests antisocial, or even corrosive. While I am the first to find fault with all manner of radicalizing internet subcultures, my position on pursuing visual fidelity in simulation is that it’s value neutral, even if gratuitous in some cases. This is a form of craft, magic, and entertainment, and all of these things can exist on a spectrum across the toxic to the beneficial.

A diagram showing a person gazing through the narrow window of a monitor into cyberspace

Still, even the biggest monitor and most powerful video card have limitations. They are, at best, a small window onto a much larger universe.

A person surrounded by a bubble of cyberspace

Augmented Reality (AR) technology—or as Apple prefers it, “Spatial Computing”—would replace the window with an all-encompassing membrane. Cyberspace is all around you, a soap bubble over real space.

Which means the cyberspace powers of instant information, non-local communication, creativity, and unlimited duplication can leak further than ever into real space. Meanwhile, the scale of our relationship to cyberspace changes. We can be enveloped by it, and we can make it fit into contexts previously reserved for things like furniture.

Anything digital can be as big as your couch.

Or as big as your room.

The problem is that pulling this off in a way that’s persuasive is exceedingly difficult. We don’t have technology like holograms that can project cyberspace onto real space. The best we can do right now is to ingest a bubble of real space into cyberspace, and then draw pictures over top of it.

Mostly, attempts to do this have been shoddy at best. It’s just a fundamentally hard problem. The eye is not easy to fool, and even now it’s barely possible to get the components small enough to fit comfortably on the face.

An ostrich shoves its head into a purple hole, inside a bubble of cyberspace

So instead, companies have been selling virtual reality, which like an ostrich, asks you to shove your head in a dark hole while your ass hangs out.

It’s not great technology. It’s neat for an hour, but the novelty wears off quickly. For one thing, it’s wildly inconvenient. You can’t actually see any of the real space artifacts that will absolutely kick your ass if you trip over them.

Worse still is that the images aren’t quite nice enough to be worth becoming your entire universe. The video is kind of grainy and, for many, causes motion sickness.

What comes next

Apple put us all on notice this week that we’re now on the threshold of proper AR. The era of ostrich malarkey is at an end. They have the technology all fitting together such that it can persuade our eyes and minds.

It’s not perfect.

For one thing, the first model costs $3500. But before you assume it’s doomed, remember the first Macintosh cost almost twice that after adjusting for inflation. So most people didn’t own the first Macintosh.

But many more owned later models. And more still owned the Mac’s Microsoft-driven cousins. It took about 16 years to make the shift, but the GUI/screen/mouse portal to cyberspace became affordable and ubiquitous, helped along by advances in computing and improved efficiencies in mass production.

AR is going to need its own advances, because consensus among reviewers is that while Vision Pro is doing something impressive, it’s also quite heavy.

It is interesting that Apple chose the moment when the technology integration was good enough, but not perfectly comfortable, nor particularly affordable. It suggests they think there’s a solid early adopter crowd they can nonetheless make happy, that the state of the technology won’t poison the well.

I suppose Tim Cook did learn that lesson the hard way.

Skeptics with an eye toward history could use this opportunity to compare the Vision Pro with a number of failed CD-based consoles of the 90’s. Hell, Apple even had one: Pippin.

But what’s different here is that Apple has spent so much effort building a unified ecosystem of content and services, merely implementing their own apps could make the Vision Pro compelling to the sort of person who can afford to buy it.

Meanwhile, with so many frameworks shared with iOS, there’s an enormous community of developers who already know the basics of building for this platform. There’s already a library of apps ready to run. If this truly is the next paradigm of computing, plenty of devs will enjoy the shortest learning curve in history while transitioning to it. They already know the programming language, the APIs and design patterns, even the quirks of the platform vendor’s distribution agreements.

In short, I think this chapter of computing really is Apple’s to lose, and that their track record is strong enough to assume they really have their arms around the technology challenges.

At least, that’s what the reviews are suggesting. Gadget reviewer Marques Brownlee summarizes by saying it has the best “passthrough” (of visual surroundings) he’s seen in this category of device. And that it’s kind of heavy.

So: Not perfectly comfortable, but it can produce the illusion of reality on a persuasive level. Which means soon enough, through ongoing miniaturization, it’ll be both comfortable and persuasive, and then it’s over the for the computer monitor.

The next few years will be about figuring out a whole new chapter in user interface and interaction design. We’re going to see novel forms of creative expression that that both target this technology, and are enabled by it. I can imagine a whole new chapter of CAD software, for example, along with the next generation of 3D/spatial painting products in the vein of Google’s Tilt Brush.

I also think this chapter of computing is really going to freak some people out. This will occupy a spectrum from the productive to the sanctimonious, but I think all transformational technology is worth a skeptical eye.

There are some who will instinctively react with a deep, limbic revulsion against being enveloped in this way. Everyone is allowed a preference, though mine would not match yours.

I’m not worried about privacy or platform integrity with Apple, but experience with cell phones shows us that the lower end of the market is a free-for-all in terms of privacy-eroding crapware. AR is loaded with cameras and sensors, and if Apple’s approach is to be believed, eye tracking is essential to making the illusions of AR persuasive. This is so much potential for abuse of everything from biometrics to images inside the home. Consumers should stay vigilant to these threats.

More abstractly, it’s worth asking about the long term consequences of immersion in cyberspace. A sufficiently advanced version of this technology could create persuasive images that left reality feeling lacking, depending on your reality.

More dramatic still: what does it mean to be influenced on this level? What can I make you believe with AR that would be impossible with film or prose? Forget advertising… imagine political manipulation and hate movements. And what about harassment? That’s all sobering shit.

So I think blind optimism may be unwise. This really is powerful stuff, and any serious power comes with sharp edges.

On the other hand, I’m excited. Cyberspace has been a part of my life since I was seven years old. I value my adventures and accomplishments there. I have spent decades honing skills for expression and creativity in that strange plane of possibility.

I can’t wait to see what is creatively possible for us on this new frontier. I want to see what can be made here that’s good, positive and optimistic. I want to know how we can be closer, share more experiences, even if we’re far apart. There are so many ethical lessons this generation of computing professionals can draw from. We’ve learned so much the hard way. I want to see how can we use this power for good.

And, more practically: I want to know if I can avoid ever going to a fucking office again.

However you lean, I would buckle up. Something big is coming.

Cyberspace: The case for Augmented Reality Cyberspace: The case for Augmented Reality