what augmented reality can do for real reality

In a conversation with Anth Melton a couple of months ago about augmented reality, Anth said something that turned my view of the technology on its head. It’s stuck with me, got to be shared and he won’t be bothered, so here goes.

We tend to come at augmented reality from the point of view of the benefits ‘within’ it, ie. what it does for you once you’ve got your Google Goggles or iSpecs on and you’re wandering around a world you’ve programmed, seeing a range of content and adverts picked out and filtered for you. But Anth suggested we should regard the development of AR from the other direction, from a town planning / eco-improvement perspective. Perhaps it offers an incredibly powerful tool (or at least impetus) to sort out the real physical world. I honestly haven’t heard this perspective on AR anywhere else and it amazes me, the more I think about it, it’s almost Mayer Hillman counter-intuitive.

You know the way that sometimes urban spaces look suddenly, unexpectedly beautiful if you look up above the ground floor? The truism that if you’re walking around a shoddy town centre, overcrowded with consumers, full of advert hoardings and with every building covered in shop signage, that the buildings themselves are actually gorgeous? You just have to look slightly upwards – to the first floor and above – to get smacked in the face by how lush these streets of varied historic architecture are, especially at a quieter time of day. For me Oxford Street and in particular Charing Cross Road are like that early morning, when there aren’t the usual bucketloads of numpties. Brighton is like that too because we have ramshackle, alleyway architecture which fades into the background when the town is rammed brimful of tourists and shoppers.

So what we do is migrate all extraneous commercial and social signage onto augmented reality, provide everyone with the means to view it when needed, then enjoy an improved real world that we can drop in and out of as suits. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months, imagining the extent to which the exodus online of commercial industries could go hand-in-hand with renewal of (both urban and rural) spaces. Someone needs to get the ball rolling with a trial space.

Pick an area, such as a small progressively-minded town. Then digitise as much commercial traffic and transaction as possible, not simply to improve its efficiency or make the same advances everywhere else is trying to make, but with a conscious aim of ‘cleaning up’ the physical world. Trial this small town free of any advert hoardings or roadsigns, which are all in a town-planned augmented reality space. It becomes illegal to drive a car without your council-supplied AR iSpecs on.

Go nuts. Hoodied yoof gets hold of special AR spraypaint apps to graff up the ARscape. Gig promoters and theatre managers flypost and billboard their shows in the same ARscape as newspaper sellers posting up their headlines. The only dogs you’re allowed to walk around town exist in AR, so the shit is deletable. Political campaigns and letterbox junkmail are in that space too. Parents can limit what their kids’ glasses pick out, so that they’re not exposed to the more adult-oriented promotional material, while similarly filtering the childrens’ adventure games out of their own AR.

Meanwhile we can switch civilisation off and opt out, temporarily or permanently as we feel, choosing to breathe in an uncivilised alternative.

Just for a start, out a little challenge to all the hi-tech digital conventions (that may be inevitable anyway): run your events with no physical invasion of the space you’ve descended upon, other than the people themselves. Imagine South By Southwest 2012, not a single leaflest, nor goodie bag, nor poster. Just hundreds of geeks in shades, knowing slightly more (and deliciously slightly less) than the rest of us.

Anyway, I liked it. Only downer is, it reminds me of the paperless office that never happened. But never mind, it has staved off post-tour blues for half a day.


5 responses to “what augmented reality can do for real reality

  1. I like and dislike the concept in equal measures.

    Although I can see the point you are trying to make, I think it’s just another well intended idea with no practical use – A bit like Socialism. To be a success, you need people to partake. And people won’t always want to partake for reasons varied enough for me to not bother trying to list them.

    I also think we should be encouraging people away from technology, rather than the opposite. It’s all pretty impressive what we can do on a mobile phone now, and i am willing to admit that I am sure social networking has provided a number of people with a lifeline and reason to live. But on the whole, as people, we are losing the art of social interaction. I find this to be a crime against humanity. The amount of people with a big internet personality who can’t string a sentence together in real life is disturbing. Kids are growing up without any concept of spelling, punctuation or social etiquette.

    Within the next few years, I predict there will be rehab for social networking and other digital addictions. I think people need to come back to reality, rather than living in the one they access through a keyboard. As technology moves forward, it’s only going to get worse.

    I do think conceptually it is a wonderful idea, but realistically I think that it would both never work, and actually be detrimental to society as we know it. Its just an opinion of course, and I am also willing to bet I may not have understood fully. But I just firmly believe real life is better. On every front (he says sounding off on the internet)

  2. In reply to Chris TT:
    This is potentially genius, but it surely won’t be marketable. If all the rubbish in life was online, then people could just avoid it by not going to the sites they find unpleasant. Advertisers/promoters etc would not be able to work. Currently internet advertising costs a tiny fraction of real advertising for the very true reason that it’s not as effective when it’s a small icon on the side of your screen. No one would remove their real stuff from the real world where it is doing a very good job for them. You could pass laws to enforce it, and then capitalism would collapse (not saying that that’s a bad thing, mind you!).

    Enforcing it would just be a bit totalitarian as well…for example I didn’t like the bit where you said you could only walk dogs in AR – but some people love dogs in real life, and a real life dog has to have real life walks. People live in the real world and AR just isn’t a satisfying enough alternative. It’s not exactly going to sate the disillusioned, unloved youf’s craving for rebellion by posting some graffiti on a screen that only he will probably ever see and which is not remotely illegal. There’s a reason why paperless offices never materialised.

    Not to shoot down the whole idea though – it really is intriguing and I think bits of it can be applied usefully. If all shopping was done only online, then maybe the shopping forum websites would be a fruitful place for advertising. But again it might not be marketable because people want to know what they’re definitely getting when they buy it.

    Re: Evan, above –

    I’d like to see some evidence that the internet is making people lose social skills, and that means something more substantial than some vague experiences and intuitions you have. Show me an empirical study proving it. People have been saying that we’re losing social skills and writing skills for centuries. If you actually do the research though, you’ll see that technology makes young people more literate, not less, because they write far more than they used to. I think if anything modern society is more sociable than say, the society of 50 years ago though I suspect that if there is a difference, it’s not substantial.

    You are of course right to say that it’s slightly horrific for humanity to lose touch with its real world and with real people. However – a) we’re not doing this, because AR hasn’t been a satisfying enough replacement for reality, and b) Chris T-T’s model would address this by making the real world more pleasant and appealing to visit.

  3. Very interesting perspectives. I struggle with the idea of technofear, and disagree that we should be backing away from technology. How far should we step? Do I put down the iPhone, switch off my computer, turn the lights off, put my cutlery in the bin, bury my own rubbish, lose my clothes? What point do I cease to disintergrate “I” with tech, and WHO decides this?

    Although tech has created some rather explosive problems along the way, I feel that if we embrace the development of new ideas then hopefully tech will help us into a better place, not a Brave New World. The internet is one of the most encouraging places to observe this, social networking is surely the “human” and “organic” part of us shaping tech and intergrating the real and the virtual with our lives, sure some people will tread a damaging path, but we don’t need tech to let humans screw something up were perfectly capable of doing that “unaugmentaly”.

  4. Fascinating responses already, thankyou. To clarify (because I don’t think I necessarily wrote this particularly well)…

    I promise my ‘trial village’ is an extreme tongue-in-cheek example and I wouldn’t be thinking about imposing people not having real dogs!

    I mainly wanted to write it all down as an alternative idea to contrast with many people who’ve been preaching the all-dominance of augmented reality. I just hadn’t heard this perspective on it at all before, until Anth mentioned it. (the thought that the move towards AR potentially frees up real reality, allowing us to return it to a more tech/commercialism-free).

    I’m also not trying to predict this *will* happen – just mooting it as a more healthy way of thinking about an AR future – its success would rely entirely on how pervasive AR becomes in every day life – and I’m not saying it *should*, in fact although I like AR as a concept I prefer it as a concept for play, such as blending fantasy worlds with real worlds, or adult play / dating, or art-making and culture sharing, or whatever, rather than hard business.

    But perhaps it’s like somebody saying, back in 1989: “Imagine, a world with hardly any phone boxes… that might be nice.” – how fast the world can change.

  5. Hey, nice post! very creative.

    What are numpties?

    But then, as you pointed out, it would become illegal to do things in the augmented reality, like maybe flyposting or using the digital space in some “offensive” way like posting graffiti. Either way, it is the future!

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