Ever since the innovation of integrating camera transistors with every pixel of an organic LED screen, it has become technically possible to make display panels that are automatically two-way video screens. Which was a great way of eliminating the need for a webcam in your laptop.
But it wasn’t practical to continuously monitor all those billions of faces staring at televisions, phones, computers and interactive walls. Or was it? Google’s algorithms and vast computing power have given the information giant the ability to identify individual faces, track their eye movements and even read their lips.
So now Big Computer really is watching you. And making a note of what you look at, who you talk to, where you go. For future reference. To make your life easier. And more convenient.
The business and productivity benefits are obvious. Simply mouth the word ‘home’ and your home page comes up. Point at an item to open it. See who you are chatting with as clearly as they see you. Hold a page against the screen for an instant scan.
More exciting is intelligent glass, which can subtly alter your view of the world, providing valuable insight and information about the visible environment. This is a whole new reality.
Magical. Brilliant. Innovative. How did we ever manage without this technology?
But when the day comes, as it surely will, that the screen refreshes to show us what it thinks we should see, even before we make our selection gesture, then we have to ask if we have finally arrived in ‘1984’.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
“Can I trust you, Google, or are you watching me?”
We are all concerned about privacy, but we have to trust our systems and networks – we can’t live without them! But if they’ve been watching us, with our implicit consent, and have figured out a way to really analyze and log our every move – would we be happy with that?
Big Brother is a fictional character in George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. In the society that Orwell describes, everyone is under complete surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens.
Such was the totalitarian nature of the state, that people were not even allowed to switch off the screens. The obvious paradox of Orwell’s scenario is that there were no computers. How would any party be able to physically, visually monitor millions of people without them? But these paradoxes do not exist in 2020. Everyone voluntarily switches on several screens a day, or leaves them on continuously. How else would they do their work, communicate, or be informed and entertained? And the powerful server farms run by Google, Amazon and Microsoft can easily monitor millions of users, raising all the necessary flags, and dealing with their interactions autonomously.
The big difference is that today the society is not totalitarian, but willingly compliant, and global. Once the ‘telescreen’ or two-way display is ubiquitous, will it be abused by internet giants, or will it be the ultimate tool of social networkers, putting the power truly in the hands of the individual?
The way dissidents used online tools to mobilize opposition to a government crackdown on news and freedom of expression during the 2009 Iranian elections provides an example. Imagine how they could have used ‘telescreens’ to broadcast what the television networks were not allowed to cover.
2009: Video explodes
Swapping video on YouTube is all the rage. Making Skype video calls to your friends is commonplace. As bandwidth prices drop and speeds increase, HD video is available all over the web.
Microsoft announces ‘Project Natal’ which is a sensor that recognizes faces, voice and body movements. Primarily designed for games consoles, the device can also be used to login by facial recognition, issue voice commands, and manipulate data with hand movements.
The Apple iPhone 3G S is released. The biggest feature of this new model is its ability to take full motion video and share it with friends, or even YouTube. While several high-end smartphones have had this feature for years, it becomes mainstream when it can be accomplished ‘with just one click’.
Fraunhofer IPMS researchers demonstrate their prototype display screen with interlaced photodetector cells.
2012: First telescreens
The first commercially available telescreens hit the market – in iPhones of course. These ubiquitous devices finally allow millions of people to speak face-to-face from thousands of miles away. Laptops and desk-bound screens are quick to adopt the technology. Like early webcams, the two-way capability of these screens is simply ignored by the majority of consumers.
The Chinese government insists that all Lenovo laptops have this feature, and that it can’t be disabled.
As OLED displays replace LCD and plasma as the dominant, least-cost manufacturing method, camera transistors are integrated as a matter of course. The technology lies in wait, for that ‘killer’ application that will make it mainstream.
2014: Intelligent glass
The killer application arrives. A double-sided viewing screen is like looking through glass, but with the ability to alter the image, and overlay other images and useful data. Augmented reality gets a tremendous boost as ‘intelligent glass’ is used in wearable displays and portable devices.
The added dimension of being able to interact or issue commands with simple eye movements makes the technology compelling for all sorts of active applications.
2016: Super-size my display
Wall-sized screens, whole buildings that light up your life, have a hidden function: They are watching you walk past. OLEDs are superbly versatile. They can instantly switch from ambient lighting to the harsh glare of spotlights; from gaudy advertising to interactive video; and from a simple display to a two-way video device or telescreen.
Architects find a pair of these displays a wonderful way to make an eyesore ‘invisible’. Each screen displays what’s on the other side of the obstacle, making it seemingly disappear. Retailers create shop windows that seamlessly switch from marketing images to an inside view of the store.
It’s not unusual for a sales poster to greet you as you approach, and watch for your reaction before launching into a promotional pitch.
2019: Hello brother
Now we are all watching each other. Our screens are continuously watching us, ready for our every gesture, and even analyzing our facial expressions. Connected to the global brain, your PDA has truly become your personal assistant, dogging your every move, and even anticipating some of them.
But something is watching all of us. Like a universal consciousness, there is a web of artificial intelligence that powers the mammoth search and fulfillment services, assimilating a frightening amount of information about our preferences, daily habits and behavior, and even our occasional vices. We are happily complicit in this conspiracy, for the amazing value we derive from these systems.
Will the balance of privacy given up versus value received always tip in our favor? Or will we one day wake up to the fact that we are our own worst enemy, hostage to the very systems we have created?