A while ago I wrote about how the Internet could eventually be combined with our physical reality in some fashion, overlaid so that our surroundings would basically gain all of the features of the Internet, including searchability and physical context-related information. At that point, a few mobile devices had GPS, but now that the new iPhone 3G is out and apparently selling like hotcakes, there are a slew of applications being made available these days that take advantage of the phone’s GPS to bring the virtual world of the Internet closer to our physical world. Basically, these devices know where you are (yes, I know it’s a scary thought, but I wonder if people might not be as frightened of this as it becomes more common), so information about everything around you is available through the device, a real-world Wikipedia: That interesting building across the street was built in 1903 and was the scene of a political assassination. There’s a tea house up this alley, but people say the Oolong is bit dodgy. Some got a really good picture of this empty house. There’s a squall moving in, we’d better get inside. That kind of thing.
Another aspect of this is that your phone not only knows about the physical world around you and your place in it, it will, through such (still rather sub-par) programs as Fire Eagle, Buddy Beacon, MyLoki, Britekite and the like, know where other people are, where they’ve been, even where they’re headed. This is a cool application, but I’m pretty sure I would lose a few friends when they see how I turn off my location beacon or hop on a bus as soon as they approach. Another strike against this will be not being able to send a text message I often send to people I’ve got appointments saying, “I’m almost there, just a few minutes!” when they can plainly see I’m still at home, in the bathtub, and I haven’t even scrubbed behind my ears.
Those little pixelated badges I’ve seen in the corners of a few websites recently confused me for a while. It turns out that they’re scannable QR codes that point your mobile device to a certain place on the Internet. Apparently they’re often used in Japan, and you can even make a badge to wear with such codes on it. If this kind of technology takes off, and it seems that businesses are designing these things into graphics, it will be another way the physical world is connected to the virtual.
Most of this interaction, so far, has been one-way, of the physical world being described and adjusted to by the virtual, but with the advent of 3D scanners, touch screens, interactive displays and even shape-shifting buildings, I wonder when and if the balance will tilt the other way, making the physical world “programmable” to a certain extent.
Every square foot of this planet has a history, whether people figure into it or not. Choose any street corner in your city and try to imagine all of the things that happened to all of the people standing in that very spot over the years. Now that we’re in a position to actually record these things and make them known, sooner or later a filter will be needed to deal with all of the massive amount of information that piles up. A good example of this is Panoramio on Google Earth: Eventually maps will be so covered in blue dots that you won’t be able to see the actual places unless you turn them off. Who will become the arbiter of such information? Who will decide what gets seen and what doesn’t? Now that’s the scary part, especially given the frightening, ongoing crackdown on personal photography in places like the US and UK, even as more and more CCTV cameras are put in place for the “official” version of the world. Give it 20 years, and the virtual world people have come to rely on overlaid onto and even able to change the physical world will be completely manipulable by those in control of the resources to do it. When that point comes, which reality will you believe?