Judging by the teeming sidewalks of New York City, many people have mastered the art of avoiding physical collisions with other pedestrians while tapping their smartphones. But do our so-called “augmented reality” devices enhance our experience of the material world, or just get in the way of social interaction, learning, and cultural enjoyment?

Sarah M. Kaufman, a research associate at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, housed at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, has been examining this question in her research.

Ever since the invention of television, people have accepted a distorted, miniaturized version of reality. But in this era of the pocket computer, are we now creating a new definition of what’s real?

Yes. Between the physical and virtual worlds, a new layer—augmented reality, or AR—provides us with context-specific information, like navigation from our present location, immediate transactions, real-time translation of signage, and coordination of our friends’ whereabouts. Future applications will include socially enhanced shopping (with real-time reviews from friends), virtual games on physical sidewalks, and medical checkups from afar. Just by pointing with our smartphones, we’ll be able to project historical landscapes onto our modern streets.

That sounds kind of distracting.

Immersing users in more information and in exciting technology can vastly improve and inform an experience, but it can also detract from the actual event. As AR infiltrates city life, it begs the question of how widely it will be used, and whether its impact on urban exploration will be positive. It depends on how much the user allows the technology to shape the experience.

What does your research tell you?

With growing numbers of applications that improve navigation, a wealth of knowledge to be tapped at any moment, streamlined access to social contacts, and new immersive entertainments, the positives are many. Specifically in cities, mobile technology has been known to increase how far people walk (they know more about what to expect, so are willing to expend more effort to reach their destination). It helps people to connect with others in innovative ways. And it enhances cultural experiences.

Are there any downsides?

Intrusiveness, privacy concerns, increased opportunity for social detachment, overuse, and questionable sources of information. But consider: If the user is able to augment an art exhibit with new information, her experience will likely be enriched. If she chooses, however, to see the art only through technology, then she will have lost out on both the purpose of the technology and the cultural benefit she desires. In the end, the goal of AR is to allow the user to forget the technology that’s being used; it should seamlessly blend into the environment. Users of AR technologies should be immersed in their surroundings, not the technology designed to enhance how they experience their surroundings.

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