For years sci-fi movie-set designers and computer nerds have prophesised the advent of augmented reality, data overlaid onto transparent displays and pictures beamed directly onto our retinas.

Well, it’s starting to look like we’re now well on the path, for better or for worse.

A new generation of contact lenses built with very small circuits and LEDs promises bionic eyesight. Photo: University of Washington

I’m worried.

This technology in the hands of an unthinking user interface designer has the potential to hurt, maim or kill people.

It’s bad enough with people TXTing and driving. What will happen when windscreen overlays allow in-car social networking? And what about those crazy bionic contact lenses? Is there room for the real-world underneath all those layers of data?

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DivX Head Up Display. An in-car multimedia environment.

What’s that? A highway behind the windscreen? It’s getting in the way of my GPS navigator.

And what’s wrong with actual reality anyway? When’s the last time you made a daisy-chain or plucked a four-leaf clover?

I’m worried because already too many designers lose focus of the task at hand even on websites let alone augmented reality. We’re already overwhelmed with options, navigation, content, pictures, animation and advertising.

Already people, including myself from time-to-time, walk the streets looking, not at the pavement, but our cellphones.

Too often we pass people on the street we know and wave out, but they don’t notice us because they’re plugged into their iPods, or in future, watching the movie preview of Avatar III via their bionic contact lenses.

As a designer of digital media, and increasingly digital content merged with the physical world, I’m both excited and wary. Augmented reality and digital content has the potential to ruin a great experience if the focus and purpose of the experience is not well understood.

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A British telephone directory service is out to save Londoners from themselves and has started wrapping lampposts in thick padding.

You usually can’t beat the real world for the ultimate user experience. Just try diving into cool clear water, watching a sunset or tasting a fresh strawberry.

Digital content should be there to enhance and extend an already compelling real-world experience, not replace, clutter or dominate it.