Designing for a new reality: Thoughts on the impending world of augmented reality

Apple CEO Tim Cook, in November of 2022, stated: "Not too long from now, you'll wonder how you led your life without AR."

After trying the Nreal Air glasses—which look mostly like a regular pair of sunglasses tethered to a device—I believe that AR future is just around the corner. Though time will tell whether or not that's true.

Still, I can't help but see the magic augmented and mixed reality headsets can unlock for consumers and designers alike.

My first "Aha!" moment with the Air glasses was being able to plug them into my laptop while in an airplane. For the entire flight, I could work with three large screens projected onto the small screens in the glasses, fixed into place so I could easily view one or the other by slightly moving my head (you know, how real multiple-monitor setups work). Being able to do some work with three full-sized monitors from the comfort of my airplane seat blew me away.

It's now a regular occurrence for me, at home, to sit in the comfort of the living room or office couch with the glasses plugged into my laptop. Being able to relax and still use multiple monitors directly in front of my face has been an eye-opening experience.

The hardware is what keeps something like Nreal Air's "AR" glasses (and similar brands such as Rokid) from being fully augmented or mixed reality. For example, the constraints of Apple's operating system ecosystem mean the Air firmware can only do little more than screen mirroring.

The MacBook Pro experience is better, but not something you can easily walk down the street with to get, say, map directions. So I'm restricted to using my Airs for comfortable, multi-monitor work and little else. But if a company like Apple—who can control the hardware and the software experience—ships something even a fraction better than the Airs, it will unlock many potential use cases and help "normalize" AR.

I imagine them doing just that later this year as rumors of an "Apple Headset" flourish. Though I optimistically hope they go the route of a "normal" pair of looking sunglasses that can tether to an iPhone. (Think the Nreal Airs, paired with the Ray-Ban Stories camera-powered glasses, meets Apple Watch controls and iPhone-powered experiences.)

As the iPhone revolutionized digital software design, a great augmented reality setup will influence how designers think about interface design and interactions.

The Airs work in "augmented" modes by blocking out blacks on a screen. In other words: anything solid black in a design becomes transparent. Fully immersive headsets can get around this by utilizing a camera array and projecting the outside world into a full screen—known as "full passthrough," similar to Meta's Quest Pro. But I'm not convinced this is the "best" way to introduce actual augmented reality to consumers. (My friends at Meta are rightfully tight-lipped about what the company has in store for AR.)

So, what will our software look like when we can no longer use blacks? How will we design software that can't always be the most sizable thing in a person's view? What interactions can we create when the world becomes the "screen" upon which software is projected?

Yes, there's a lot of room for abuse (such as the frightening everything-is-an-ad future depicted in many sci-fi classics). But augmented reality will open up more constructive, empowering, and fun experiences than many can imagine today. And these experiences will be dramatically more fulfilling than sitting on a couch with a laptop and a bunch of virtual screens projected around you—though for now, I'll revel in precisely that.

Beyond visuals, there's the notion of interacting with the augmented world. Sure, you can use a tethered iPhone as a remote control, but there are more effective ways to interact with AR software.

Voice control and minute gestures on the device are the most likely path for simple interactions (ala Google Glass). Hand gestures will likely be available as well but limited due to their inherent constraints (not to mention their complete lack of usability with those who require accessibility setups or for when you're, say, carrying something you can't put down).

I could write an entire book on augmented reality's future and its impact on designers and software creators. But I won't bore you with an endless stream of theoretical ideas. Instead, I'll end with this:

The augmented future is going to be exhilarating and empowering. I can't wait to expand the world around me with the entirety of technology (notably, the wealth of knowledge the Internet possesses).

I imagine a future where I'll work with infinite virtual screens around me as ChatGPT provides audible feedback on whatever I'm writing. I can change the background music I'm listening to with a glance and check the virtual calendar on the wall of my office by focusing my vision on it. My work peers send me status updates that I can readily see above all my work (but tactfully in an ignorable space). All from the comfort of my office couch. And when my wife pops her head into the room to check if I want to grab lunch, I wipe all the work screens away by removing the pair of sunglasses I was wearing.