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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – V

Augmented reality, adding a vase with flowers on a table, is “easy”. Diminished reality is difficult and partly magic, like removing the table and “creating” what the table presence was hiding. Image credit: Fayteq

The third area of Tech Trends in the FTI’s report is about the changing landscape of reality:

  • New Reality -augmented, diminished, mixed, virtual
  • Synthetic Reality/Media
  • News and Information Summary

Notice that none of these are “new” in the sense that they are not available today or were not present in some forms in the last decade. What this trend is saying is that we are shifting towards a new landscape whilst in the past the landscape contained, here and there, in some space and time niches some elements. The new landscape will be formed through these tech advances. A little bit like what was cellular communication in the early 90ies and what it is today: then it was the existence of some radio based communications, now is a landscape where cellular communications form an integral part of life (could you imagine living without a cellphone?) and in a way it has reshaped our lives.

Diminished Reality

In this new landscape the separating line between truth and false gets blurred. We have already seen that in photos (you may want to read one of my recent posts) where it is possible to add and remove parts. This second aspect is called diminished reality (because you are removing something from the real -virtual- space).
Let’s start from a simple photo, like the first one in the image. You have a table and chairs in a room. In the second one you see an example of “augmented reality”, a vase with flowers has been placed on the table. The vase may be an artefact, it may only exist in the digital space. Using software it has been overlaid on the table and in doing so it is masking whatever happens to be in the background (like part of the frame and part of the shelf). Now consider the third photo. Here the table has been removed by software and the software has created a background that was previously hidden by the table. The problem here is that we don’t know if what has been created is what was hidden by the table. It has to be credible, otherwise our eyes (brain) will spot something unusual and smell “fake”, but as long as it is credible we have no way to spot that something has happened to change the reality.

This “removal” of parts of an image has become a standard feature of photo editing applications and is making use of artificial intelligence: the software has to guess what could be hidden and recreate it. The progress in this area is continuous, it is achieving impressive result but it is far from being perfect. The point is that in order to create a credible background the software would need to understand the overall photo, the same way our brain understand it. As an example, removing a person from a beach but leaving its shadow would ring a bell of fake in most viewers. Similarly not recreating a reflection, a sparkle would signal to our brain that something is wrong. According to the FTI report diminishing reality will become “real” by the end of this decade. This would be an amazing result since, as I articulated, that result can only be achieved once the software is able to get the same level of understanding that our brain has.

Diminished reality can also be seen as a way to decrease the complication in an interaction. Imagine you are working on an airplane engine to perform some periodic maintenance. With Augmented Reality your glasses can overlay some pointers to guide you to the exact place needing your intervention. With Diminished Reality all of the complicated wiring, bolts, pipes disappear and only the parts requiring your attention remain visible.

Now think about a webpage full of data and think about applying diminished reality to replace that page with one containing a minimal number of information that really matters to the task at hand.  These are self explanatory examples of the power of diminished reality. They also highlight the complexity in delivering it: the software needs to understand what is relevant to you at that specific time, as well as what makes sense to hide. Diminished Reality can greatly simplify interactions, more than the simplification that can be achieved with Augmented Reality but it is way more difficult to deliver in a consistent and meaningful way.

Notice that, as with any alteration of the physical reality the big question mark is on “who decides” what is relevant? And who is responsible for the outcome of an action based on an altered reality?

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.