AR is the Pursuit of Eliminating the Latency Between Atoms and Bits

It’s been almost 4 years since I first got involved in the augmented reality community, and 2.5 years of actively blogging about it. During those years I’ve seen many try to define what’s AR and even more importantly what’s not. Many arguments whether GPS based, projection based or webcam based AR should be regarded as augmented reality, and should we dismiss roadsigns and maps as “not AR”. Four years, and only lately I came up with a definition the pleases me (and would be happy to hear your thoughts).


Augmented reality is the pursuit of eliminating the latency between atoms and bits.


let’s break it down.


Atoms and Bits – I think most of you agree that augmented reality is about delivering digital context (bits) to real world locations and objects (atoms). There are many ways to do so – using visual overlays, olfactory signals and haptic devices. Even within visual overlays there are many competing and complementary methods to augment the world. For me, both head up displays and roadsigns were at one time or another (or are still) augmented reality.


Eliminating the latency – Humans are lazy by nature and want to do more, faster and with less effort, be it physical or mental. That’s how technology evolved, and that’s how AR evolves. At first we needed to use maps to find our destination, which required us to identify our current location on the map (which always falls between the folds) and plan our route. This takes time (latency) and effort (latency incurred by the brain). With GPS we greatly reduced that time. With “windshield AR” we can reduce it even further, eliminating navigation mistakes that, you guess it, make us waste time.

Eliminating latency has another interesting outcome. It means that AR is bound to be peer-to-peer based or highly distributed. If you live in New York you don’t have the patience to access an AR server in Seattle, a mere 100ms away, if the atoms near you may change their position by then (or you just moved your head).


Pursuit – This alludes to the fact that augmented reality is not a thing but a movement. Methods that were once considered AR will not be in the future (e.g. maps). If five years ago you need to Google restaurants in your vicinity to find a good place to lunch, a process that took a lot of time, you can now use an AR browser. But using Layar (or any of their competitors) hasn’t fully eliminated the latency. You need to get your phone out of your pocket, and use your brain because the positioning of labels is still not perfect. Head up displays (or contact lenses) with high resolution positioning will make mobile phone based AR look antiquated like paper maps are today, because they have the potential to minimize latency to the speed of light and the speed of our brain. Enter the brain implants and only the speed of light will be a factor in the AR game.

4 Responses

  1. The first limit isnt light – its the fact we are using html/http based comms and full pages of data. We need to switch to streams with just the co-ordinates updated of that specific item, that would help a lot.

  2. AR still has a long way to go but as you’ve mentioned we’re starting to see the exciting possibilities of where it’s headed with applications like contact lenses, windshield AR and head-up displays becoming serious pursuits! Someday the technology may be as ubiquitous as technologies like cloud computing augmenting everything we work and interact with.

  3. Your interesting definition here may cause you to elide AR experiences that appear to waste our time. Ceremonies and rituals INDUCE latency by slowing and focussing experience. By ornamentalizing it, by augmenting it. Who wants to hurry up and get efficiently to the point in a magic show?

    I’d also respond that, despite the great strength of the metaphor, bits are always bits of atoms. “Bits” always have some material presence in the world, and even though it appears fast and weightless, AR is a material enterprise that has to shovel voltage and photons. AR is an experiential lacquer on a vast mechanical substrate of sensors, circuits, handsets, relay towers, servers and power plants. If you analytically separate the bits from the atoms, you risk overlooking the powerful interests of the stakeholders running all that machinery.

    Defined from that perspective, AR is a niche smartphone-service enterprise that has found a foothold in certain form factors that happen to carry navigational components that can be repurposed for 3D registration. That’s “the fragile beauty of AR,” the recognition that AR is a young, tender, visionary thing that wafted through the window the computer-science lab and blossomed in a situation where no one expected to see it.

    AR may well be the mystical apotheosis of the the road sign, but right now it’s like a comely young creature on the yellow brick road, holding a hand-lettered sheet of cardboard that reads “ANYWHERE.” And it’ll get picked up and go somewhere, all right. Probably not because it’s de-latentizng the bits.

  4. By eliminating the latency between reality and it’s augmentation it doesn’t make AR more efficient, but it helps to ease the experience. AR’s aim mustn’t be to simplify or speed-up the technology we already have but rather to confront or surprise us by visualizing the invisible, that is where the real magic happens. And when this does, we accept and embrace the latency as a property of the movement, as a beautiful glitch.
    I made an experiment with projected light that symbolizes this latency, it’s called AtomBit.

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