Thursday, August 30, 2012

Is augmented reality the new QR code?

A few weeks ago, I saw this title to an article "Augmented reality is the new QR code" and before I even read the article I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Although the article is more of a feel-good piece about how augmented reality is usurping QR codes, let's be many QR codes were actively being used that are now being made obsolete?

I realize that I'm running the risk of ruining my "crazy emerging tech for learning girl" reputation, but I've been here before and I've learned some lessons. When a new technology starts looking for a problem to solve, it better solve that problem elegantly and quickly or the technology faces a pretty uncertain destiny.

Yes, I'm talking about you, virtual worlds...

I love innovation and I love experimenting with the potential of new technologies. I have been known on more than one occasion to quote the catchy adage that Henry Ford probably never said: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." I'm not about to rally against innovation. What I have a problem with is people making up issues to solve just because a new technology is on the scene.

I encountered this often when I was working in pharmaceutical sales training. You may (or may not?) be surprised at how often new medical conditions were marketed because a pharmaceutical company created a molecule that could treat it. Restless leg syndrome? Social anxiety disorder? While these conditions are certainly extreme enough to warrant treatment in some patients, I often questioned the threshold at which pharmaceutical intervention is warranted. No drug has zero side effects and any time we take medication, we are making the choice that the impact of the treatment outweighs the cost to our bodies. 

The same is true, albeit typically with less life and death impact, with new technologies introduced for learning. The issue with virtual worlds, to over simplify and grossly generalize, was that they were a new social communication tool that could address issues that no other technology could address as well, but the cost and learning curve were too steep to make virtual worlds a good investment of time and resources. Virtual worlds never tipped the cost: benefit ratio in their favor. 

Neither did QR codes. 

And now, although I am encouraged when I see augmented reality examples like IKEA that make total sense, I wonder if augmented reality will suffer the same fate. Is there enough of a need for us to augment reality, once the novelty wears off? Do we need reality to be more real and richly informed? How will our brains adapt to processing a new layer of sensory data over our already sensory-overloaded experiences in the "real" world? 

Innovation works when a need is filled in a new and intuitive way. We want things faster, easier and better. We want things that are social. We want things that only require incremental changes to our existing habits. We want things that help us achieve our goals or satisfy our basic human needs. We want things that help us solve our problems. 

If a new technology doesn't do these things, it won't achieve mainstream adoption. So come on, augmented're definitely "oooh! shiny!" show me what else you've got.