A product designer friend recently asked me, "What is the fundamental capability that augmented reality provides?"
The fundamental capability that current eye glasses provide is to see better. They help near sighted people see far away things. They help older eyes see things that are close. Ground troops sometimes wear a different kind glasses, night vision goggles, that help them see better in the dark. Fighter jet pilots wear augmented helmets because they help them see better information about their aircraft and their combat situation.
I've been playing with a Hololens at home, testing its capabilities and figuring out all of the decisions that Microsoft designers made on top of the technology. I've now placed a few dozen virtual pieces of decoration and information (they call them holograms sigh) in the nooks and crannies of the main floor of my home. It's really fun to place them and think about how they interact. It was fun to see my partner and kid discover each one. When I'm not wearing the glasses, I wonder what's happening with the virtual stuff. I see the house different, now.
Is it "seeing better" enough to wear a clunky Hololens most of the time? No way. If it was not clunky? Totally.
I've re-purposed my social media streams, muting or unsubscribing from people who post anything except art and the occasional interesting or funny idea. It's lovely to show up on Twitter and Instagram to see another batch of art. I'm looking forward to following someone on Twitter and choosing to add their geo-pinned posts to a layer that I see when wearing AR glasses. I can only barely imagine what it will be like to see the accumulated art of my entire stream of artists laid across a city.
So, that's decoration and art. With a little daydreaming, I'm sure that you can think of ways to see better with other types of information. Architecture, safety, infrared, food reviews, dramatic reenactments... They just keep coming.
What the big tech companies are shipping as augmented reality is just a sign that they're dipping their toes into the water. The tech isn't ready. The designs certainly aren't ready. But, they're important first steps into mass market AR and they'll get us ready for when we're smart enough to ship glasses that aren't clunky. For when we're smart enough to see better.