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The Infinite Retina - Irena Cronin and Robert Scoble ***

I really wanted to like this book - spatial computing and augmented/virtual reality are topics that are fascinating and will definitely influence our lives. There is a lot on them in this chunky tome, but a considerable amount of the content is repetitive, and it suffers strongly from geek-enthusiasm, making wildly optimistic predictions of how we'll all be wearing augmented/virtual reality glasses by 2023-2025, and of the transformative dominance of autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars if you prefer fewer syllables).

The approach to each of these areas was, for me, full of issues. If I think about what I currently use a smartphone for and it's a very wide range of applications - maybe 40 different roles - but I can only think of one, following directions using mapping software, that would be enhanced by augmented or virtual reality. Similar, my main computer I do maybe 20 different things more intensively. Here, for example while working with text documents or spreadsheets, I can't see any point whatsoever.

Similarly, the self-driving cars section seemed dominated by enthusiasm for the concept and Tesla-love. (Tesla gets an awful lot of mentions.) But it didn't address the problem of what will happen when autonomous vehicles kill hundreds of people. Yes, they will be saving thousands of lives - but those are virtual lives, not real people. The families of those killed by robots or faceless corporations will be very real people. Such is the authors' enthusiasm for self-driving cars, at one point they comment 'Electric vehicles are cheaper. Autonomous vehicles are too...' At the moment you pay at least £15,000 extra for an electric car over the equivalent petrol vehicle. Autonomous will have a significantly bigger markup still. Yes, you save on fuel costs - but it's going to take a good number of years to pay off that strange version of 'cheaper' that involves paying a whole lot more.

The trouble with looking at this sort of technology through geeky eyes is the assumption that everyone else is like you and cares all that much about the latest hot tech - but most of us don't really care as long as what we have does the job.  What the authors seem to miss when they predict an explosion of AR/VR headsets is that (as they tell us) this technology has existed in the military since the 1960s and commercially since 1990s. But it is still only bought by a tiny fraction of a percent of computer/smartphone users, in part because people don't like to wear stuff on their face. (Remember 3D TV anyone?) Yes, the technology has come on in leaps and bounds, but Cronin and Scoble really don’t explain how we can possibly get from where we are now in 2020 to AR/VR glasses being mass market affordable products in 3 to 5 years time as they suggest.

Occasionally, the book does acknowledge some of the problems, and here it's at its most effective. In a section on why Google Glass failed so spectacularly, for example, it notes that one big problem was the over-hyping of the product (even though that's exactly what's being done in this book for the next generation). Similarly, there's a really well-thought out section on the difficulties that are going to be faced over privacy and data sharing if we're using systems that track our every movement, down to where we're looking all the time. One scary revelation, for example, is that already a Tesla is constantly capturing and photographing everything it passes and sharing the information. I'd love to be able to afford an electric car, but what I've read here has certainly persuaded me it shouldn't be a Tesla.

I genuinely did appreciate reading the book for those occasions when it got real. (There was also a lot of interesting material on the use of spatial computing technology in, for example, warehousing and retail.) But what perhaps should have been the most interesting but balanced bits - on the personal environment, including what we currently use smartphones for, and cars - felt like wading through fanboi treacle.

P.S. spot the grammatical error in the subtitle 'Spatial Computing, Augmented Reality, and how a collision of new technologies are bringing about the next tech revolution.'

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Review by Brian Clegg


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