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The Possibility of AR on the Urban Space

The Possibility of AR on the Urban Space,

The Possibility of AR on the Urban Space

Part 1- Introduction

Between 2018 and 2020 I set aside some of my time to research a subject I’ve been passionate about for many years: What is the real potential of AR on the Urban context? I conducted this research as part of the Digital Humanities Executive Masters Program at Sciences Po here in Paris. It was for me an excuse to step back and think about the tech I was dealing with daily, and to do it with a purpose, going deeper and asking honest questions about its feasibility, desirability and what it will actually look like. Can AR media effectively be integrated in cities? How can it be truly useful for users? At what privacy cost would it come about? How would a centralized AR platform fit in today’s tech macro-economy?

To answer all this I spoke with data scientists, entrepreneurs, users, developers, engineers, UX specialists. I read a large range of books and papers on urban planning, technology, game design and gamification, locative media and governance. I listened to podcasts where industry insiders spoke more candidly about the medium than they would on a printed media, I dove into gaming forums, as well as reviews posted online about AR experiences being offered.

I presented my research on September 2020 and you can read it in full here. Since then, it became clear to me the importance of those questions, so I decided to edit the most relevant parts in smaller bites, update with some new developments and post them here.

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On the very day that I defended my monograph Facebook announced its own AR program: Project Aria. Also last year, Niantics announced an alliance of mobile providers to ‘bring planet scale consumer AR’. AR glasses with more or less impressive capabilities are popping out here and there. Covid made all things digital a yet bigger part of our daily lives, it became urgent to bring products and services to people’s home and AR was once again part of the conversation.

Those are all exciting developments, but if you are following closely you learned to be reasonably skeptical. A consumer AR hardware has been “in the 3 years horizon” for about 15 years now. Apple is working on hardware but it is reportedly delayed yet again, and Magic Leap seems to have lost its flame before being able to enlarge enough its consumer base. That leaves us for now with mobile AR, witch has its own set of issues. As I will explain later, a seamless, truly magical AR is a much harder problem to solve than it seems, because most of its problems are in the human part of the equation (not too different to autonomous cars, another over-promised urban tech)

That doesn’t mean that a small revolution on computer interfaces is not on its way. What AR evangelists are increasingly realizing is that AR will look a lot different from what we though it would. If we strip down the visual design fiction and focus on the contextualized ever present invisible interface we can have a good idea of what comes ahead. That is one of the aspects that I’ll look into, focusing on the out-on-the-streets application of it.

Part 2- Technology Has Big Plans for Reality

Some basics principles first: Augmented Reality happens when we blend the digital with the real. (it seems obvious but its important to remember) It is an interactive experience of a given environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information. It is similar to virtual reality in the fact that the interface is not a screen, but the physical space around us and interactions happen in 3D space. It differs from Virtual Reality in the fact that AR places computer generated elements in the real world around us, instead of the fully virtual, immersive space of VR. Mixed Reality is similar to Augmented reality but it differs in the fact that the digital objects react and respond to the world around it.

The basic principles of the interface with which we interact with computers hasn’t changed much or many years. For reasons that will become clear in the next posts we have been using incrementally better versions of graphic interfaces that can be traced back to the 1990’s. Between a mouse cursor on a desktop, our fingers in a touch screen, pens on a tablet or various forms of keyboard, the input stays basically inside a two dimensional space where we type and move things around. Our communication with machines are mediated by characters and gestures that leave less space for ambiguity. They also require us to actively seek them, to go and click, type, tap.

Augmented Reality’s promises to be the next interface, to allow for a new era of spatial computing, one where we replace the screen of a device, be it desktop, laptop, or mobile with interactions and information displayed in, and informed by context. What AR will truly be about is ‘Ambient Intelligence’ and it will deeply redefine how we interact with digital content.

That change in focus is important. Different ways to interact with computers have populated our imagination through movies, science fiction and works of speculative design. Its natural that we get attached to the visual aspects of it, the shinny object, rather than the underlying elements that allowed to show this or that in that particular place and moment. For that reason big leaps made in the last few years might have gone unnoticed from AR folks, most notably the voice commands of Siri, Alexa and others. Those products are laying the ground that will allow for non-visual AR to be on our daily lives a lot sooner than visual AR. Sound AR is a promising and fascinating field and I’ll try to come back to it in the another post.

Science Fiction gave us spectacular visual AR and those appearances might have set a standard that is still too high to be reasonably achieved. For that reason AR today can be extremely underwhelming, and by consequence counter productive to the evolution of of the medium. I explore some examples on the longer version of this paper.

One important work of design fiction I would like to bring attention to is Ben Russel’s 1999 “The Headmap Manifesto’’. It is a speculative text that lays out the argument for “recolonization of the real world, computers becoming invisible, mobile, networked and location aware, the real world augmented rather than simulated.” It is based on the principle of computers going outside: “People finding more outside than inside and developing sophisticated information based relationships to exterior spaces, computer games moving outside, technologies facilitating the tagging and annotating of spaces, places, people, animals and things, the emergence of new forms of spontaneous externalized real social interaction, constructs drawn from dreams and myth shape the outside more tangibly than ever before” The manifesto is a remarkably prescient text, laying out many of what became popular features of locative media 20 years before its time. Many proponents of location-aware media cite this work as influence in their field, (Anne Galloway 2008) and we can see in it elements of today’s AR geo tagging features, Trip advisor or Google maps notation principles, Ingress virtual battles in real world territory, or in Foursquare’s check-in feature.

More importantly it also draws the outline of what will come next, with connected places and things that will give us real-time contextual information and media: The invisible computing part of it.

“Cell phones become internet enabled and location aware, everything in the real world gets tracked, tagged, barcoded and mapped.” More than being the vehicle to show the information, our devices are simultaneously mapping everything. We know where all this information is going, and we are beginning to understand how all this data will be a essential part of future AR.

In a 2019 Wired article, Kevin Kelly, articulated the concept of what has become an aspirational path for AR in the future. It is based on the principle that we will scan and digitize everything, building a 1 to 1 map that would allow us to use reality as a new platform.

“Someday soon, every place and thing in the real world — every street, lamppost, building, and room — will have its full-size digital twin in the mirrorworld. (…) Piece by piece, these virtual fragments are being stitched together to form a shared, persistent place that will parallel the real world.” (Kelly 2019)

The vision laid-out in the article is a culmination of many different technologies that are being developed today in what is called ‘AR Cloud’. It comes from a line drawn between the Internet of Things, Pokémon Go, AI, 5G and new Lidar scanners. It is the idea of a real world platform, built on the collection of point clouds of every scannable centimeter of our common world. Like Russel’s vision, it also represents a scenario where our relation to computation becomes passive and embedded on everything.

There is a lot to unpack in the concept of AR cloud, and I will come back to it on a later post. But I would focus now on the world ‘persistent’, as it is the key to make reality become a platform. This persistence will happen with new ways of mapping that are comprehensive and constant, and we know that the most efficient way of doing it is relying on users. For that reason AR will favor a set of players that already have access to a large user base today.

The ideological background of XR has shown to be an important clue to the way the directions the medium is developing. It is an ideology anchored in views of ambient, ubiquitous computing. It promotes the blurring of the lines between digital and real, embedding the word of atoms with the world of data. In it the interface becomes invisible because it is everywhere.

It also carries early ideas of concepts brought in by science fiction of a world that can be fully understood and fully contained within one system. That is an extremely ambitious task, but it is one that has made its way to companies like Google. The exhaustiveness of Google’s effort on mapping every city and every street should prove that such a task is probably attainable, given enough resources and user-generated data.

To be continued.

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The Possibility of AR on the Urban Space was originally published in AR/VR Journey: Augmented & Virtual Reality Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Iracema Trevisan

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