What “Blade Runner 2049″ Gets Right (And Wrong) About AR

By Adam Ghahramani

(Note: this article includes mild spoilers.)

The shining star of Blade Runner 2049 isn’t Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, or that polygonal Jack Daniels bottle. All sparkle, but Augmented Reality burns brightest.

AR brings Blade Runner’s cyberpunk city to life. Hulking holograms strut about town, miraculously avoiding traffic liability. When they’re thirsty, they reach for floating cans of Coca-Cola. When they’re on the clock, they reach for new customers.

Image from “Blade Runner 2049”

AR also fuels the most fascinating character, Joi, a pixelated companion. Joi can change shape, adapt to her partner’s desires, and go mobile. The original Blade Runner had artificial companions in the form of impish toys, but being a hologram, Joi doesn’t frighten guests or leave a footprint.

We’ve seen 3D adverts and virtual girlfriends before, in movies like Back to the Future II and Her. We’ve also seen them in our present reality. As far back as 2012, a Japanese developer created his own version of Joi. And a few of our portfolio companies, like KabaQ and LocateAR, are imagining new ways for businesses to attract customers with AR.

Blade Runner 2049’s depiction of AR is at its best when it’s unconventional.

In one vivid scene, Joi overlays herself atop another woman, altering that woman’s appearance. Thanks to SnapChat, we know that AR can change your look, but seeing it done outside the context of a phone is thought-provoking. In the future, will we need plastic surgery when we could overlay a new nose? For that matter, will we need clothing, when we can walk to work in our underwear and overlay a 3-piece suit? Here’s a plot twist: Deckard is human, but his t-shirt artifice.

Another scene has a blind Jared Leto “see” the world from multiple, impossible angles, through an array of floating sensors. Could we use AR and VR to help people overcome handicaps or experience the world in new ways? Researchers are already doing this, by rehabilitating paraplegics and making people fly.

In a third scene, we watch an artist paint memories in AR. We’re reminded that AR is more than consumption; it enables new forms of creativity. TiltBrush is a close example of this, though it is still tied to VR head mount displays. Another is Glimpse Group portfolio company, KreatAR, which lets you layer AR atop greeting cards and presentations. It’s exciting to think about the new kinds of artistry AR will enable in the future.

As thought-provoking as those examples are, the film could have gone further in how it depicts AR.

For example, in a world of advanced AR, there’s no need to plug in traditional computer monitors or print physical photographs. You could project both on-the-fly. Then Gosling wouldn’t have to worry about onlookers sneaking a peek at his sensitive photographs.

And what to make of how the holograms are created? An external gadget beams Joi to life, but wouldn’t it be easier for everyone to have AR implants? Replicants already have artificial eyeballs and Leto’s neck is a glorified USB hub. Perhaps the movie implies a hybrid solution with machines and bio-sensors working in tandem.

Films like Blade Runner 2049 drive product ideas and inspire consumers to support nascent technologies. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to their details. And while the film’s details had room for improvement, they did a welcome job of spurring the imagination and showing us fascinating possibilities to come.

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