The blending of sci-fi and reality by Jem Tugwell

No Signal and Proximity author Jem Tugwell discusses the possibilities of augmented reality.

No Signal is the second book in the iMe technothriller series, and is set a year after Proximity (book 1) introduced the world of iMe, where crime is eradicated by complete control and people are kept in optimal health through embedded technology.

No Signal asks: ‘Can a game change the world?’

The game is central to No Signal’s thriller storyline. We’re not talking about anything like football or even Monopoly, but an augmented reality game.

Without giving too much away, ten potential gamers are selected and face challenges that whittle them down to the final four. These four are sent to the Forbidden Island of the UK, but they find that their game is corrupted by politics and the environmental crisis.

Augmented reality is often shown in sci-fi. Even in the classic Terminator films, for example, there are a number of sequences that show the world through the Terminator’s vision. Technical information is overlaid on the real world images, and used to assess the suitability of clothing, the choice of vehicle and target acquisition.

 

But AR is obviously not all sci-fi. Pokémon Go uses the mobile device’s GPS to locate, capture, and train Pokémon which appear as if they are present in the player’s actual location. It has been downloaded over 500 million times and has had hundreds of millions of active users. As our phones get more advanced so do the AR possibilities. Running apps project checkpoints onto the user’s route to aid pacing and help optimise fitness. There are apps for golf with details of courses and pool table apps to show angles of the best shots. Professional cyclists train with glasses that project a whole stream of information onto a head up display while cycling.

These overlays of technology onto our visual reality are increasing and the possible applications keep growing. They might be sci-fi today but they won’t stay that way for long. Why learn a language when your glasses can ‘see’ the language that is written and then present you with a translated version? Or how about a technical manual overlaid on top of your view of the machine you’re repairing. Wouldn’t it be great if the surgeon just about to operate on you had detailed overlays and models available to them to aid them?

What is possible is really limited by the interface available to the gamer/user.

Wearable technology, like our phones, cameras, headsets and glasses are still mostly 2D interfaces in a 3D world. Imperfect maybe, but what would a smartphone look like to the wearer of some of the earliest wearable technology?

 

In 2000, researchers discovered an Egyptian mummy with a prosthetic big toe dating back to around 900 BC. Since then the field of prosthetics has progressed through the iron hands of the 1400s, the hook and rigid wooden legs of pirate stories, to truly wearable technology. Myoelectric prosthesis use data captured by electrodes from contracted muscles to control the movements of a prosthesis, such as elbow flexing, wrist rotation, or finger pinching. Microprocessors are used in the control of some prosthetic knees. Amazingly, recent advances by University of Michigan researchers have tapped faint signals from arm nerves and amplified them ‘to enable real-time, intuitive, finger-level control of a robotic hand.’ They have unpicked thick nerve bundles into small fibres and used tiny muscle grafts. Amplifying the signals from these smaller fibres along with the use of machine learning algorithms, allows more precise control.

If the science continues, how long will it be before there are prostheses available that offer an advantage over our organic limbs?

Oscar Pistorius, the South African ‘Blade Runner’, was briefly ruled ineligible for the 2008 Summer Olympics because of the potential advantage from his prosthesis limbs over runners who had ankles. Research showed that he used 25% less energy running at the same speed.

In the future, we could all be waiting for the latest synthetic hand, attaching it to the universal mount on the end of our arm and enjoying stronger, more versatile limbs. Only when the technology of AR and prosthetics evolve and are fully embedded will we see what is possible.

Until then it’s left to fiction, like No Signal and the world of iMe, to imagine what might be and explore how it might be used.

No Signal will be released on 4 June 2020 by Serpentine Books.