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Can addictive apps rob us of ‘reality’?

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The rise of mixed reality technologies will create an unprecedented opportunity for consumers to customise their own realities. Martin Walshaw, Senior Systems Engineer for F5 Networks, explores the social impact on South Africa
The increasing apprehension surrounding consumers becoming detached from the ‘real world’ due to ‘mixed reality’ technology is a growing concern.
Many commentators have cited social media for encouraging unrealistic expectations. A good example is a recent survey of more than 2500 social media users conducted by media entertainment company, MSM, in which almost half of men surveyed believed social media would ultimately make them famous. This number reached almost a third amongst women.
It’s no secret that South Africans are becoming increasingly addicted to social media platforms. The number of social media users in the country increased by 10% from 2015 to 2016, according to We are Social’s Annual Digital Report. The average daily use of social media via any device is up to two hours and 43 minutes and many experts believe that this will impact productivity during the average working day.

Consumers are seeking new realities
It’s increasingly evident that South African consumers are seeking new realities largely because they are dissatisfied with their current ones. According to The Future of Apps, a report commissioned by F5 Networks and conducted by the Foresight Factory, 59% of South Africans feel they are not reaching their full potential in life.
The report explores the rise of mixed reality technology, a combination of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), which will create an unprecedented opportunity for consumers to customise their own realities. It reveals that 71% of consumers in the EMEA region feel the need to satisfy a desire for new experiences. It is this growing desire for novelty, which is driving innovation in applications that make use of mixed reality technology.
Applications have the potential to be exponentially more addictive than social media.
While virtual and augmented technologies are relatively new to the mass market, almost half of consumers across South Africa have already used a virtual reality headset or are interested in doing so, according to The Future of Apps. This rises to 57% of Gen Y consumers.

The rapid advance of mixed reality apps
Meanwhile, a number of companies are beginning to push the boundaries when it comes to the capabilities of AR and VR apps. Samsung has already been awarded a patent for smart contact lenses overlaid with internet-connected devices. This would allow the lenses to perform a range of functions, such as displaying information, playing videos or taking photos. The result will be a digital world in which any information, training or skill can be downloaded from the network and transposed over the user’s immediate reality.
When it comes to VR tech, Ultrahaptics has developed a technology in the UK that allows users to receive tactile feedback without needing to wear or touch anything. The technology projects sensations through the air and directly to the user, allowing them to feel touch-less buttons and interact with virtual objects.
While these technologies are still in their infancy, it won’t be long before we reach a point where consumers are able to select and adapt their own realities.

Questions around ethics will arise
Mixed reality capabilities are going to raise entirely new issues regarding the ethical use of these applications, as well as the need to ensure all platforms are secure. The social responsibility of unleashing applications with the potential to lure consumers away from their actual realities in favour of digital realities will require companies and consumers to meet strict regulations.
If tech providers create new realities for consumers, then unscrupulous sources could also manipulate those realities, especially as they become more addictive to users. Some industry experts warn that personalised worlds could bring the potential of unhealthy ‘echo chambers’ and, even, delusions of self-importance.
In addition, the need to secure vital applications and protect personal data will be of paramount importance. With more virtual environments soon to shape our everyday lives, the reality is that we, as consumers, will need to be better prepared to manage our own credentials and protect the world in which we choose to engage. In summary, the power of virtual reality is set to become the new virtual power.