What If You Could Edit Reality..?

Alasdair Allan
3 min readMay 31, 2017


Our computing is slowly diffusing out into our environment, everyday objects are already becoming smarter and in 10 years’ time every piece of clothing you wear, and every thing you carry with you, will be measuring, calculating, and weighing your life. We’re building an Internet of Things.

But one of the problems with this Internet of Things is the screens we use to control it. That’s where the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT might well be on to something, with the Reality Editor.

With Reality Editor, objects can have hidden interfaces. (📷: MIT Media Lab)

Right now the user experience of the Internet of Things is the screen. We stare at our smartphones, and interact with the app that controls our thing, rather than the thing itself. That isn’t going to scale.

But if we want to take away the screen we don’t want our connected objects to suffer from the button problem. The need to add more and more buttons to support the different ways an object can be used.

A web-browser for the physical world (📹: MIT Media Lab)

One way to avoid that is to use augmented reality. In fact, it’s possible that the arrival of the Internet of Things—which is still frantically searching for a workable interface paradigm—may prove to be augmented reality’s killer application.

The Reality Editor picks up on real world visual markers, using their position to overlay digital content into an augmented reality interface. This allows you to use virtual controls to tap into the capabilities of the Internet of Things.

Overlaying a card balance using Reality Editor. (📹: MIT Media Lab)

The editor allows you to point the camera of your smartphone at an object to expose and edit its capabilities. It allows you to drag a line from one object to another to create a new relationship between these objects — for instance, connecting a single switch to a light, or a group of lights.

Building an object for the Reality Editor with the Arduio Yún. (📹: MIT Media Lab)

Effectively the editor lets you edit your reality and manipulate the way objects control and interact with one another. Interestingly, the same objects could theoretically have different relationships for other people. Everyone’s reality therefore isn’t necessarily going to be the same.

This approach hides the interfaces and relationships of smart objects away from our day-to-day world. This works because these relationships, from switch to light, aren’t needed every time you interact with the object. We don’t necessarily need to see all the capabilities and options every time we flip a switch to turn on a light. I’ve always argued that technology is only ever mature when its invisible, and I think the Internet of Things will only be useful when it’s invisible.

If you want to play around with the Reality Editor, the Media Lab has published a developer guide to building augmented objects using Arduino.



Alasdair Allan

Scientist, Author, Hacker, Maker, and Journalist.