Imagine you enter the waiting room of your doctor’s office. You take the only free seat; the other four are already occupied. There’s a moment of awkward eye contact as you take your seat in the silent waiting room. As you get settled, what’s your first reaction?
Most people will take out their phones and maybe put on noise-canceling earbuds. Not that there’s anything important to see — you just keep refreshing your feed, not wanting to talk to the others.
“As smart glasses proliferate and AR becomes commonplace over the next decade, diminished reality presents an opportunity to virtually mask, reduce, or suppress features of one’s environment, rather than simply build on top of it. While the metaverse is commonly thought of as adding stimuli to our surroundings, DR may enable a more minimalist approach.” Simply put, DR takes away from or limits physical reality.
Overlapping with Augmented Reality
Diminished reality overlaps a lot with AR, as much of the underlying technology is the same. Oftentimes, adding digital content in AR means altering or covering physical objects which are thereby ‘diminished.’
Another application of AR that involves diminishing reality is sometimes called “remove and move,” in which the user selects a physical object and moves its digital representation to another location. One obvious use of this is in interior design, where you can move furniture you already own around your house to plan a change in layout before actually lifting any heavy sofas or cabinets.
Diminished Reality Use Cases
Diminished reality has many fantastic use cases. One is removing or blocking advertisements that would otherwise bombard you, especially if the Metaverse turns out to be an ad-driven dystopian nightmare. Another might be managing the sensory input for medical reasons, like muffling flashy visuals or limiting light exposure to people with mental conditions who might otherwise suffer.
Another exciting application area of DR is see-through. If a physical space is represented digitally and a headset knows where it is within the representation, walls are no longer obstacles. Elements can be made transparent and you can see what is behind them.
One application of this is in surgery, where medical staff or medical students can use headsets to see what they need to operate on through skin and certain organs. Or, mechanics and engineers would be able to see parts buried deep within the system they’re working on without taking it apart.
Of course, see-through also poses security and privacy concerns — walls, obstacles, and clothing have important functions that we can’t undermine.
Using Diminished Reality For Blocking
However, DR can also be used for more questionable ends. One perfect example is blocking others’ appearance and voice, just as in Black Mirror. While blocking in the current 2D version of the Internet is undoubtedly a great feature, transposing it to head-mounted devices that work in real-time on people’s real bodies generates a host of new ethical concerns.
DR can also let us avoid the things we don’t want to see but should, like poverty, racism, ugliness, disaster, accidents, road signage, ideologies we don’t agree with but should consider, people unlike us, et cetera. Just like escaping an awkward situation by looking at your phone, using DR technology to block out the real world doesn’t mean the issues won’t persist, it means that we’re just ignoring them and setting ourselves up for being affected by them again later.
As with any powerful new technology, diminished reality is a double-edged sword. I often get excited about AR, frequently pointing out its unique ability to retain the magic of the real world while adding the possibilities of digital. But I’m also guilty of forgetting about the things it can take away. As we develop DR platforms, we have to consider not only what we want to see, but also what we don’t.
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