Rumination 58: Everyday AR

In my previous job, I made the two-hour trip to Sydney CBD each morning—half in the car, half on the train. I never really became accustomed to it but I tried to form habits and routines to make it as efficient and painless as possible. Eventually, it was time to move on and I found a position in Wollongong, which is now much closer to my home.

Recently, I needed to travel to Sydney for a work-related event; the venue was fairly close to my old office and I was eager to see how it would feel to dip my feet back into that old commute again.

This time, however, I hadn’t considered how much a variety of technological changes—both personal and as a part of the environment—would influence my experience of the commute.

The first experience that completely surprised me was ‘tapping on’ at Sutherland Station, the midpoint. In the past, I always had to fumble for my Opal card in my super-slim wallet; this time, I had forgotten my card but then saw that the card readers now accept Apple Pay. What was once a minor, first-world problem that agitated me every morning had become a moment of sheer delight: being able to board a train by hovering my wrist over a card reader.

The next difference came in the form of my AirPods Pro. I was an early adopter of the original AirPods and they became indispensable during my daily Sydney commute, as I listened to various podcasts to pass the time. Now with the new noise-cancellation feature, I was able to enjoy all of my spoken-word content at a reasonable volume. Furthermore, as the earbuds don’t have full physical coverage (like over-ear or on-ear headphones), I could still faintly hear the world around me, which was great for hearing service announcements. I didn’t even have to use the transparency feature, which highlights external noise.

This continued all the way through to Wynyard Station in Sydney, when I left through the tunnel to George Street and was confronted by a very surprising image: a tram being tested on the street, accompanied on both sides by police on motorcycles. For years, I had made my way out through the same exit into a dirty, noisy construction site and on this day, the entire streetscape had been completely modernised and graced by new light rail. Everyone else looked just as surprised as they waited for it to pass.

Later in the day, following the conclusion of the event, I walked back to the station past Bligh Street and eventually back onto George Street. I had some time to try out shots with the ultra-wide lens on iPhone 11 Pro and it gave a very cool, somewhat different perspective to a number of places.

Looking up through a large glass awning with boulder-like sculptures in the foreground Chifley Square, Sydney

Looking up the centre of the building’s foyer with glass lift shaftsThe foyer at 1 Bligh Sydney

Looking up at the sky with an angular, reflective sculpture in the foreground and buildings in the background

Australia Square and the Flugelmann sculpture on the corner of Spring and Pitt Streets, Sydney

A view of George Street, looking south, with buildings either side of the image

The new light rail tracks on George Street

A train arrives on the tracks from the left, moving past large iPhone 11 Pro billboards to the right. Town Hall Station, Sydney

What occurred to me as I reflected on this trip was how technology had altered my view of reality or at the very least, challenged my memory of the sights and sounds.

As stories swirl around about future augmented-reality (AR) technology, such as Apple’s long-rumoured ‘smart glasses’, I realised that people are ignoring the everyday kind of AR that exists everywhere already. In my reading of media ecological texts, as a part of my study, it has dawned on me that media and technology are indeed synonymous and that they alter our view of reality—creating their own environments.

Let’s just recap these evolutionary technological changes:

  1. Apple Pay on the watch was quick and seamless and it made me feel better about paying for the service;
  2. AirPods Pro altered my appreciation of time and space, making the time go faster and enabling me to hear both my podcast and my surroundings clearly;
  3. The light rail, as a considerable, new piece of infrastructure, transformed my impression of the CBD and will no doubt go on to affect commuters’ understanding of navigation; and
  4. iPhone 11 Pro altered the visual reality of the city with an ultra-wide lens, which whether I like it or not, will go on to be my recorded memories of the day when I look back at my photos.

Some people dream of a future when AR glasses (of some kind) sit in front of our eyes but what will the consequences be? What will it mean presumably to have notifications flashing in front of our eyes and distorting the world around us? I would argue that with a range of current devices and even changes to our surrounding environment, we already have access to a variety of transformative technological experiences, whether in the form of audio, payment systems, cameras or transport.

I’m not calling for technological conservatism—just that we appreciate what we have today and consider the effects of what is yet to come. We need to think about this carefully and enjoy what we have now, rather than just looking forward to the ‘next big thing’.