A Marvelous Medium

In this post I’ll discuss an important advantage that augmented and virtual reality wearables (which I’ll refer to as “AR/VR wearables” from now on) have over all other forms of visual media.  A clear authority on the social influence of media was the great Marshall McLuhan, who wrote that:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. [1]

McLuhan also wisely observed that:

…the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. [2]

I infer from these statements that although society has successfully adapted to many forms of media over time, it is particularly important to be aware of the arrival of new forms of media that are capable of entirely “containing” the currently dominant form(s) of media. This is quite a rare occurrence of course, but when it does happen we may expect a lot of social change to follow, given McLuhan’s words above.

Using McLuhan’s principles, let’s categorize visual media displays based simply on how many dimensions they have and whether they are static or dynamic displays.  This level of abstraction turns out to be very informative as I will demonstrate.

Dynamic 2D displays (like TVs, smartphones, tablets and movie screens) may be said to “contain” replicas of static 2D displays (like newspaper and book pages, photographs and paintings).  However, since dynamic 2D displays have rigidly fixed sizes, we’ve had to constrain the sizes of the 2D images we display on them to fall within the dimensions of the displays.  In other words, we currently have to adjust 2D images to fit on our dynamic 2D displays rather than the other way around.  This size constraint has prevented many static 2D displays from going obsolete, even though dynamic 2D displays are quite good at replicating their visual details.

Similarly, certain dynamic 3D displays today, like 3D movies on theater screens, and portable video game systems with glasses-free 3D displays, may be said to “contain” both static 3D displays (like sculptures and buildings) and dynamic 2D displays.  However these 3D display media are also size constrained.  Other more amazing dynamic 3D displays (like holographic video displays and holographic billboards, which are currently under development), are also unfortunately size constrained.  In contrast to all of these, AR/VR wearables are a superior form of dynamic 3D display because they are not size constrained in the same sense.

AR/VR wearables will enable their users to conjure up (and eventually share with others) virtual screens of any size, that are located anywhere in the space around them.  This will quickly reduce the relevance of existing static and dynamic 2D displays.  It is also likely to lead to many of these old displays becoming rapidly obsolete after an adequate virtual reality ecosystem has been put in place.

media progression 3 pdf

Once such an ecosystem is in place (whose characteristics I plan to discuss in future posts), if an AR/VR wearable user wants to watch a movie on a 60-inch virtual screen superimposed over his or her living room wall, this should be possible. If the same user later wants to watch that movie on a 60-foot virtual movie screen in a virtual theater shared with friends in different cities, this should be possible too.

The same thing goes for traditional books.  If an AR/VR wearable user wants to read a “virtual coffee table book” that measures 24 inches diagonally and looks like a physical book with individual pages, this should soon be as easy as reading a “virtual comic book” that measures 12 inches diagonally.  In other words the AR/VR wearable will have the ability to behave like an e-reader that contains realistic replicas of actual physical books rather than just text files.

AR/VR wearables are thus far superior to any existing static or dynamic 2D display media, as well as competing forms of dynamic 3D display media.

Note also that the ability to display replicas of printed pages on electronic screens has brought us significant space and materials savings versus the alternative of storing paper records.  AR/VR wearables are going to similarly bring us significant space and materials savings of their own, by mimicking 3D objects of all shapes and sizes.  They are thus a very “green” technology, with the potential to have a huge impact on global ecological sustainability. The physical objects that they mimic will not have to be extracted from the earth, or manufactured, or transported, or stored in physical space.  This means that as a society we will soon be able to completely reprioritize how we choose to use physical space and materials.



[1] McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 1967

[2] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 1964

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