Object 30

World of Glass

2029, Earth

There's a moment in The World of Glass when you, as Erica Lin, CEO of Glass Networks, face the most important choice you’ll make in the game. It comes just after you’ve reached half a billion users on the augmented reality (AR) system, a system that superimposes information and interfaces on top of the user’s view of the world via glasses or contacts, and your choice has the potential to change every single one of those users' lives. Let's start up an emulation — I have a game saved at just the right moment — and see what that choice is.

Open versus closed. Quality versus mediocrity. Wealth versus well-being. It's a deceptively simple choice about the design of Glass Networks' information ecosystem, but understanding it requires learning more about Glass Networks and its influential augmented reality protocol.

In the late 20s, as the cost of heads-up displays dropped and their capabilities increased, it became increasingly common for people, organisations, and businesses to interact with each other via virtual or augmented reality interfaces. At first, these interfaces usually had some grounding in physical reality, such as a shop overlaying prices on its walls and windows, simply because that was more familiar to users.

But not everyone who wanted to overlay AR interfaces onto the world owned the physical real estate in question, which meant they had to overlay them (or 'ground' them) on top of spaces owned by others. Popular choices included billboards, posters, monuments, and public buildings — all of these might be used to show some student's art portfolio, a portal into a massively multiplayer game, or live video from a political rally.

The problem was that any given physical space might have hundreds or even thousands of competing AR interfaces and media grounded on top of it. Navigating these interfaces was a frustrating process; turn them all on at the same time, and you'd be confronted with a nightmarish melange of colours, objects, and animations until your glasses crashed from the processor load.

There were two schools of thought regarding how to manage this. The first, favoured by Open Augmented Reality and Sopol, was to let anyone create and ground interfaces wherever they pleased. OAR would then recommend and display what they felt to be the most relevant interfaces based on the user's preferences.

This relatively open system was quickly outgunned by Erica Lin's Glass Networks. Lin's team had been pioneers in the market, developing an attractive and intuitive AR system — no mean feat for an entirely new method of interacting with computers. Under Glass Networks' 'walled garden' ecosystem, interfaces had to be approved before being grounded and made visible to Glass Networks’ users. The company favoured high-quality interfaces over those made by amateurs, and they protected the interests of existing real-estate holders, advertisers, and brands. The end result was a cleaner and more consistent experience than OAR and Sopol's, but one that was unmistakably closed.

For a while, it seemed that this battle would play out in a similar way to other open versus closed platform wars in the past, such as the titanic Apple/Android wars in the teens. Most experts believed that OAR's open approach would give them the lion's share of profits and users — but this time it was different. Whereas previous platform wars took place in what seemed like entirely new and purely digital spaces such as the internet, AR was intimately linked with the real, physical world and all the economic and political concerns that stemmed from it.

These concerns weren't high on any users' minds during the early years of AR, when it was more of an expensive curiosity than a ubiquitous tool, but as time went on, many became concerned that AR was dominated by purely commercial concerns, submerging the medium's potential of reasserting old notions of 'public space'. Social historian Andrea Galloway elaborates:

"It's hard to realise exactly how much of the public space — by which I mean the streets, marketplaces, squares, and mass transit links of the world — had effectively been ceded to the highest bidder back in the early 21st century. AR held out the promise of reclaiming that space without the expense of buying the physical real estate. As such, it was deeply threatening to the entrenched businesses and capital owners of the time. Glass supposedly stood on the side of big business, while OAR and Sopol took the side of the public."

This brings us back to the choice that you can make as Erica Lin in The World of Glass. In 2032, Glass was the world's dominant AR platform, the darling of venture capitalists and advertisers — but it was clear that Glass was facing a growing backlash from the public.

You can either choose to keep Glass as a closed ecosystem that favours corporate interests — and make billions in the process — or adopt the same open protocols as OAR and Sopol. Riches and fame on the one hand, or a gift to the common good on the other.

In reality, Lin kept Glass as a closed system, a walled garden that continued to provide a slick, simple, and restricted experience to users for many years. Other AR systems including OAR tried to compete on the basis of the freedom of expression they gave to the public, but they struggled to make an impact, barely taking any market share away from Glass’ polished world. It wasn't until the late 30s that Reserval leapfrogged Glass by developing AI-driven consensus environments that intelligently merged AR interfaces for everyone from individuals to crowds.

Every player makes a different decision, but if World of Glass showed us anything, it's that the emerging consensus-based politics of the 21st century was by no means a smooth process — and that the way an individual perceives the world and the choices they make have ripples that affect everyone.