October 6, 2014

What is Integral Reality and Why do We Need It?


Recently, a WIRED.COM opinion article written by Dan Ostrower of Altitude aroused our curiosity. Entitled The War for Our Digital Future: Virtual Reality vs. Integral Reality, Dan begins where many observers find starting points, virtual reality. Since its rise and fall and rise again, virtual reality has been proclaimed the harbinger of the new era, and also just a fad that will quickly pass away. There has been little middle ground.

Dan attempts to depart from the naysayers and celebrants of virtual reality and establish a way that the technology will influence how the digital and physical world’s relate. Virtual Reality won’t be the end, but a departure point for future applications of technology.

We live in a day-to-day that is mediated and determined by pixels and screens, he claims. Our lives are enhanced by the devices we use.

Yet for all the positives that connectivity provides us there’s also a downside lurking in those glowing pixels. They’re just not real. So as we extend our Internet time, we risk getting sucked into an isolated virtual reality that lacks the richness, emotional relevance and real experiences engendered by the analog world.

Overlooking the visions of a TRON future for us all in the internet, there is a delineation that Dan does not quite make with his statement. People, being people, long for emotional connection. We have found a sense of connection through the internet with people that are separated from us by time and space. The technology of today reduces the perception of those barriers and puts us in a “place” at the same time. Dan’s more subtle point is that those “places” where we meet are not real places. They are not physical. They are not of our corporeal geography.

Dan posits his emerging alternative:

Fortunately, there’s an alternative digital future taking shape that I call Integral Reality, which combines the best of the digital and analog worlds. Integral Reality intertwines the wonders of the digital within the physicality of real things. With digital components embedded and invisible within objects, Integral Reality won’t separate us from the real world but instead promises to create emotionally engaging experiences with it.

His examples are interesting. Reality games, mobile games that are played with a team in the real world. New computer and device interfaces that are based less upon flat squares and keys, but function on curves, through haptic sensors and by motion. And, the grail of the sci-fi writer, the driverless car. He claims that all three of these advances will bridge the divide between the digital and the physical. He’s not wrong. These advances will make the world a more tech-driven physical place.

In Dan’s examples, the driverless car will open up the chance for the windows to be delivery devices for information, for capture, for communication with the world that is passing by. New interfaces will decrease the “I’m sitting at a computer feel.” As the technology enabled physical world advances, our emotions will be more seamlessly stimulated and satisfied. His claim is that we will be more engaged.

The basis of ESI’s practice since its inception has been to engage audiences through technology driven, physical experiences. Our history has taught us that it is indeed possible to integrate reality into technology and technology into reality. The needs for the future of design — a very near future at that —  will be driven by the goal of creating emotional connection, not just tech-driven physical devices.

More people and firms need to be sounding this call. Designing from the audience out, whether for an experience or product, necessitates the inclusion of that user’s emotional reaction. We will have to wait and see if developers, researchers, designers, and creative technologists will adopt this view into their work whole heartedly. Until then, we will sound the call with Dan.