jump to navigation

A New Coat of Paint October 24, 2009

Posted by Matt in Uncategorized.

The Future Of Augmented Reality

Does the example of augmented reality (AR) pictured above seem farfetched to you? While the image itself may be a fake (you can find it and other similar images here), the concept behind it is pretty much feasible. In fact, the concept of AR seems to have set itself apart from the arguably platonic ideals associated with virtual reality by virtue of its very feasibility. If the prospect of VR has lost most of its credibility in a sea of rhetoric that may never substantiate itself, AR has aimed a little closer to the here and now. As Sconce’s warning from a few week’s back indicated, perhaps it’s worthwhile to momentarily unmoor ourselves from vapory speculation and consider the transformations that are already taking place today.

For instance, consider Layar. It’s an augmented reality browser that can be downloaded onto your cellphone (a variety of similar applications are available for the iPhone, as well):

This application definitely recalls the following bit from Lev Manovich’s “The Poetics of Augmented Space”:

“A tourist with AR glasses that overlay dynamically changing information about the sites in the city onto her visual field. In this new iteration, AR becomes conceptually similar to wireless location services. The idea shared by both is that when the user is in the vicinty of objects, buildings, or people, the information about them is delivered to the user—but in cell-space it is displayed on a cell phone or personal digital assitant (PDA), in AR it is laid over the user’s visual field” (79).

Given the existence of an application like Layar, perhaps we aren’t that far away from further, advanced manifestations of AR. One of the news blogs posting about Layar made special note of the fact that a fictional concept was finally becoming a reality (perhaps they were accustomed to VR musings that never leave the realm of abstract theories). This speaks to the possibility that, when it comes to AR, the gap between conceptual promises and their realization may be significantly smaller than that of VR. Submerging ourselves into a convincing, synthetic world certainly seems like more difficult a task than increasing AR’s presence.

Perhaps it is this very realization that accounts for the change Manovich notes in the following quote: “The demise of popularity of VR in mass media and the slow but steady rise in AR-related research in the last five years is one example of how the augmented space paradigm is taking over the virtual space paradigm” (79). While even the most hyperbolic VR ideals are certainly fascinating and worthy of consideration, their ostensible unattainability may account for the surge in AR research. Then again, it might have less to do with issues of feasibility and more to do with preference. Elaborating on the differences between AR and VR, Manovich notes:

“A typical VR system presents a user with a virtual space that has nothing to do with the immediate physical space of the user: in contrast, a typical AR system adds the information directly related to this immediate physical space […] the display adds to your overall phenomenological experience but it does not take over. Thus, it all depends on how we understand the idea of addition: we may add additional information to our experiences—or we may add an altogether different experience” (79).

Thus, AR refers to a technologically mediated relationship with our reality that does not efface that reality. Whereas VR offers the murky—yet intriguing—possibility of escaping from that reality all together. Given that the prospect of such virtual escapism is usually wrapped up in ambivalence whenever it is discussed, perhaps the more pronounced presence of augmented space is indicative of our true desires. We don’t really want to escape reality, we just want to make it a little more interesting (thus, like the Kindle, AR tech is being used to give our increasingly ‘archaic’ books a digital facelift). This is not to say that the dream of bodily liberation is an ideal that we never really wanted, but that the implications of such an ideal are always going to be tempered by some pragmatic dissent. The popularity of AR may thereby be symptomatic of the fact that not all of us are quite so eager to jettison the body and fly forward into brave new (digital) worlds. AR offers a much more agreeable, yet nonetheless exciting, alternative insofar as it is a seemingly friendly compromise that A) isn’t bound by the frustratingly fanciful dreams of VR discourse, and B) refuses to totally eclipse a reality that we, more or less, quite enjoy (or are at least accustomed to).

However, while one of the principal charms of AR may be that it does not imply a disconcerting break from reality, that’s not to say that the transformations it delivers won’t end up being a point of concern for some. In fact, just yesterday the Montreal Gazette posted an article focusing on the prospect of AR that hints at some of its potential excesses and arguable misuses. Consider the following:

Its proponents predict it will change everything, from education (point your camera at a church and read its history) to games (hunt zombies walking around in your house) to advertising (see the day’s sales when you aim your camera at a store) to training (gaze at the tangled bowels of an airplane engine and an animated screwdriver shows the part that needs to be replaced). Expect to hear a lot about it next year, observers say, as cellphones increase in sophistication and computing power, and as advertisers rush to jump in the newest trend in consumer technology.

While the concept of AR has some built-in temperance (insofar as it doesn’t seek to entirely replace our reality with virtual spaces), it seems that it is nonetheless susceptible to appropriation by techno-fanatics who want to explore its every possibility. Considering this from a position of technological ambivalence, this might mean that while the concept of AR promises us that the world isn’t going to go anywhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will remain recognizable. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if doomsayers were already readying their cries of dissent. Some may be justifiably worried that the world we know and love will slowly change — turning itself into some sort of digital palimpsest where the once familair vestiges of reality become hazier and hazier. Then again, this is probably an extreme way of looking at things. Probably.

Regardless of the credibility of such pessimistic views, the fact remains that AR tech is (at least partially) being propelled by a voracious, profit-oriented mentality. It’s important to consider who is pulling the virtual strings whenever new and exciting technology comes along. After all, the last bolded bit in the quote above refers to AR as “the newest trend in consumer technology”. Of course, this recalls Manovich’s discussion of Rem Koolhaas and “‘brandscaping—promoting the brand by creating new spaces: ‘Brandscaping is the hot issue. The site at which goods are promoted has to reinvent itself by developing unique and unmistakable qualities‘” (89). Thus, insatiability, one of the themes from my last blog post, also comes to mind here. We generally aren’t fond of stasis and we thrive on new and exciting stimuli. Thus, AR tech is simply another way of ensuring that our products and our world doesn’t get stale. Or, as Manovich so astutely puts it:

“The space that symbolizes the information age is not a symmetrical and ornamental space of traditional architecture [….] rather, it is space whose shapes are inherently mutable, and whose soft contours act as a metaphor for the key quality of computer-driven representations and systems: variability” (88).

In other words, the dynamic nature of AR’s stimuli can be read as yet another means of combating the awful prospect of stagnation. The fact that commercial interests have co-opted these means and recognized an undercurrent of insatiability in consumers shouldn’t be all that surprising. As the philosophy that Manovich cites declares, “forget the goods, sell thrilling experience to the people” (90). The fact that the goods themselves aren’t sufficiently alluring anymore, but have instead become one component of a far more complex and alluring experience, only further evinces that insatiability. Consider this in relation to the following from the Gazette article:

“ABI Research predicts that revenue from AR will grow from $6 million (US) last year 2008 to more than $350 million (US) in 2014. The growth will come largely as advertisers pay software developers to create apps that promote a brand in some way. Lego is already doing this. At some stores in the US, a buyer can pick up a Lego box, point it at a screen, and see an animation of the assembled toy.”

Apparently kids were dissatisfied with the old method of picking up a Lego box and assembling it themselves. Reinvention seems to be the name of the game, and AR is the latest way of getting it done. The variability that Manovich claims is an integral aspect of AR aligns itself perfectly with the idea that we have tacitly demanded that the world remain in flux. Stasis is boring. With that in mind, consider this next bit from the Gazette article:

When asked if AR is simply another hype like VR once was, its proponents are quick to swear to its long-term viability. ‘When you walk down the street it’s usually pretty boring,’ said Ori Inbar, founder of AR game maker Ogmento in New York City. In fact, he entered the field so he could find a way to blend his kids’ love of the computer screen with the outside world. ‘With AR, everything around you comes to life. You can be part of a story that you experience when you’re doing everyday tasks,’ he said.”

While Inbar’s comments certainly reflect this desire for flux and freshness, his enthusiasm is slightly infectious and understandable. There is an optimistic side to all this, after all. For one, applications like Layar and its inevitable successors will likely prove to be highly practical. Secondly, the idea that the physical world is becoming a virtual canvas of sorts that grants audiences a new level of participation and empowerment is certainly exciting (i.e., the user-controlled robotic searchlights in Mexico City that Manovich mentions on pg.87). However, there is also the question of who might dominate this canvas, or who we might have to share it with. As the Gazette’s article notes, corporations are already eager to utilize AR as a new trend in “consumer technology”. It might only be a short while before those same corporations use AR to flood our perspective with a whole new surfeit of annoyingly dynamic stimuli that more intensely demand our attention…

…Tom Cruise certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying that scenario. While this clip (and this one, wherein his character enters a futuristic and excessively-ingratiating Gap store) isn’t necessarily reflective of the here and now, the partnership between commercial interests and AR tech makes it seem somewhat plausible. Perhaps one day Minority Report‘s take on futuristic advertising will be retroactively acknowledged for its prescience and these clips, like the image at the top of this post, will reflect concepts that are not only feasible but already here. After all, Manovich seems to be describing a similar scenario when he discusses the collision between surveillance and assistance, wherein “affective computing […] take a more active role in assisting the user than the standard graphical user interface. By tracking the user—her mood, her pattern of work, her focus of attention, her interests, and so on—these interfaces acquire information that they use to help the user with their tasks and automate them” (77). Perhaps AR will usher us into a Minority Report-esque age where dynamic advertisements recognize us, and we can thereby no longer blithely ignore garish billboards or zap past annoying commercials.

Thus, as a virtual blanket of dynamic stimuli is slowly being laid over our physical world, I’m left wondering who will gain the most from these changes. As Manovich notes, “today’s electronic dynamic interactive displays make it possible for these messages to change continuously and to be the space of contestation and dialog, thus functioning as the material manifestation of the often invisible sphere” (87). In other words, perhaps the virtual canvas of multi-media information that AR is providing will set up an interesting tension between populist and other (i.e., commercial) interests. The fact that Koolhaas snuck a subtle criticism of consumer culture into his design for the Prada store (juxtaposing screens and actual clothes to ironically refer “to what everybody today knows: we buy objects not for themselves but in order to emulate the certain images and narratives presented by the advertisement of these objects” [89]) may be indicative of the fact that this new technology is not going to result in simple commercial co-optation.

Perhaps Manovich is correct in foreseeing an intriguing and complex dialogue, wherein the dynamism and possibilities AR provides are exploited and utilized by a variety of interests, whereby something other than the rote encouragement of sales will make its way out onto the canvas.



No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: