Overlooking a recent technology article on BBC news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24332358), I read about how a Japanese research lab is developing a system to allow users (via augemnted reality) to be able to see the translation of writing in the environment. Naturally, its intended application is to allowing users to see the their foreign surroundings in a much more familiar light. I’ve actually used a prototype of this system when I worked for NTT Communication Research Labs in Japan, and to be quite honest, it’s a bit of a shame.
Now let me be clear: as a technology, it’s great! I actually know the people who worked on it and even went to school with one of them, and they’ve done a fantastic job. I also cannot overlook the practical benefits of having a handy, easy to use translator. But there is something to be commented on the social implications of this design. For one, there is a lack of visibility from the viewpoint of others. Being able to see foreign writing in your own language is good, up until the point that you need to ask someone to get you japanese fish-shaped pastry without being able to specifically point at the writing. Ask anyone who can read traditional Chinese and has visited Japan how useful it is to just point at a menu to get exactly what you mean. Even two people using the system, yet for different languages, may not be able to communicate based simply on what their display says. Highlighting items on your display and showing this externally would likely help this issue, yet bridging what one person sees versus what is visible will be a strong consideration in a larger social context.
The second aspect of this technology that’s a bit personal to me is that it eliminates the unique feeling one gets from being in a foreign country. I still remember fondly all the lost moments I’ve had wondering Japan my first time there. The signs are foreign and the conversations are difficult; because they are! And it’s special. I had this feeling even considering how good Japanese major cities are at labeling their signs in English. But the experience is hard to compare and impossible to recreate, especially once you learn enough of the language to where it no longer feels foreign. So it may be a bit of a romantic view of what makes a trip to a foreign country special. Yet sometimes you need a disconnect in order to really connect with what is in the world around you.