One of the events that kicked off Brighton Digital Festival was dConstruct, the always thought provoking conference run by clearleft.

As usual I found most of the sessions interesting, but not always relevant as there’s a heavy design rather than development focus. The most relevant talk this year was Kevin Slavin’s final talk, Reality is Plenty, which argued that augmented reality is not the next big thing, just as it wasn’t in 2005.

Despite Kevin having a dig at Second Life and having spent a lot of time working on Augmented Reality with Blast Theory while at Nottingham University, I mostly agreed. While there are definitely use cases which benefit from augmented reality (fighter pilot navigation systems and things like Carbon Goggles which are all about making invisible aspects of objects visible) and virtual reality (simulation and virtual meeting spaces) there are plenty of others which are better served by other interfaces. Environments like Second Life are particularly exciting as they allow people to quickly prototype systems to discover which applications work and which don’t.

With both AR and VR it’s tempting to argue that they allow for intuitive interfaces as they model or overlay the real world: people know how to navigate a 3D space so they know how to use a 3D environment and they know how to use AR as they can see. Anyone who has done their time climbing the Second Life learning curve or trying to use AR to find their way around will know this clearly isn’t true. Apparently more abstract interfaces like maps, which talk to the mind rather than the senses are often much easier to use.

There’s a lot of work to be done to make both AR and VR as easy to use as 2D interfaces, let alone as natural as using real world senses. Now that the huge technical problems around networking virtual environments and tracking real world objects with mobile devices are starting to be solved, it is mostly UI work that needs to be done to make these technologies more widely used.

Even if the UX issues are solved there will still be many cases where speaking to the mind is much better than speaking to the senses.