The Matrix

Science, technology, and life.
March 19 2009 7:45 AM

The Matrix

How do alternate universes materialize, coexist, and converge? Here's one answer: Look at your cell phone.

Two years ago, I saw an article in the New York Times about " physical hyperlinks ." Essentially, these are contact nodes between the physical and digital worlds. I can hardly begin to explain them. So I'll let the Times' Louise Story do the talking:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


New technology, already in use in parts of Asia but still in development in the United States, allows [cell] phones to connect everyday objects with the Internet. In their new incarnation, cellphones become a sort of digital remote control, as one CBS executive put it. With a wave, the phone can read encoded information on everyday objects and translate that into videos, pictures or text files on its screen. ...
In Japan, McDonald's customers can already point their cellphones at the wrapping on their hamburgers and get nutrition information on their screens. Users there can also point their phones at magazine ads to receive insurance quotes, and board airplanes using their phones rather than paper tickets. And film promoters can send their movie trailers from billboards. ...
"You've picked up this product, and you don't want to go back to your PC," said Tim Kindberg, a senior researcher at the Bristol, England, lab of Hewlett-Packard. "Or you're outside this building, and you want more information. We call it the 'physical hyperlink.' "
In much the same way that Web publishing took off because of the ability to link to other people's sites, cellphone technologies linking everyday objects with the Web would reveal the digitally encoded attributes of tangible things on grocery shelves or newsstands.

In this rendering of the nexus between space and cyberspace, the cell phone is the reader. It translates physical objects into their digital incarnations. The operative digital incarnation, as of 2007, was bar codes:

The most promising way to link cellphones with physical objects is a new generation of bar codes: square-shaped mosaics of black and white boxes that can hold much more information than traditional bar codes. The cameras on cellphones scan the codes, and then the codes are translated into videos, music or text on the phone screens. ... Now, as more cellphones come equipped with cameras and the ability to run small computer programs, the codes are beginning to appear on some state drivers' licenses and on some mailing labels ... In Japan, some highway billboards have codes large enough for passing motorists to read them with their phones. Hospitals put them on prescriptions, allowing pharmacies to instantly scan the medical information rather than read it.

So, in a way: cell phone + bar code = wormhole.

That was two years ago. I've been waiting for the next piece of the puzzle. I think this is it: the integration of physical perception with three-dimensional digital maps . Here's the Times ' John Markoff:

Digital map displays on hand-held phones can now show the nearest gas station or A.T.M., reviews of nearby restaurants posted online by diners, or the location of friends. ... Indeed, a new generation of smartphones like the G1, with Android software developed by Google, and a range of Japanese phones now "augment" reality by painting a map over a phone-screen image of the user's surroundings produced by the phone's camera. With this sort of map it is possible to see a three-dimensional view of one's surroundings, including the annotated distance to objects that may be obscured by buildings in the foreground. For starters, map-based cellphones simply translate paper maps into a digital medium, but future systems will probably begin to blur the boundaries between the display and the real world. ...
Steve Capps, one of the designers of the original Macintosh interface, [asks], "How long will it be before you come out of the subway and you hold up your screen to get a better view of what you're looking at in the physical world?"
Increasingly, phones will allow users to look at an image of what is around them. You could be surrounded by skyscrapers but have an immediate reference map showing your destination and features of the landscape, along with your progress in real time.

If I understand this transition correctly, we're no longer talking about two worlds, one physical and one digital, connected at selectively engineered nodes. We're now talking about a wholesale overlap between the two worlds. Every physical object, or at least every object of sufficient size to be mapped, will have a digital incarnation. And you'll be able to alternate smoothly between the two worlds, most conspicuously by using your 3-D digital map to see right through a visual obstruction.

This is how cosmic revolutions unfold in real life: not abruptly or mysteriously, as in science fiction, but incrementally. A device here, a software upgrade there, a synchronization, a multiplication. New technologies, new possibilities, new combinations, new habits. Economics and culture are as crucial to this process as technical innovation.

The next piece of the puzzle may not be a change in either of the two worlds. It may be a change in what is, for now, the ultimate reader: the human being. This could take place through externally worn devices, biotechnology, or acculturation. But one way or another, we'll begin to shift our mental attention and our comfort zone from the physical to the digitally enhanced environment. If you want to see what this kind of mental migration looks like, just glance at all the people around you who are talking on cell phones, lost in invisible worlds , oblivious to their surroundings.

If we're lucky, the next migration will bring our minds back into alignment with our bodies. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In a gesture as simple as holding up your smartphone to see what's around you, we'll begin to inhabit the new world, without leaving the old one.