Reality is augmented when it feels different

19 June 2011

Kevin‘s talk from Momo Amsterdam a few weeks back. I know it’s been linked elsewhere, but really, it’s marvellous, and if you’ve ever used “AR” in a meeting or room – or even been in a meeting or room where it’s been mentioned – you need to sit down and watch this. It is a good 26 minutes of your time.

I, personally, am very bored of screens as magic windows, especially when they have to be held between the eye and the world; the Wii U video with the controller held up between eye and TV made me very sad.

Using screens liks this turns them into a kind of “reality gobo“. So much optical AR suggests it’s overlaying information on reality, and thus augmenting it – but really it sits between our senses and reality, getting in the way.

Optical AR, viewed through screens, derived from markers, or marker-less technologies, or through QR or barcodes or god knows what else, I think – I hope – will feel like a distraction, a false turn, in the years to come. And yet right now, it’s cropping up in more and more places in increasingly irrelevant implementations. And if I don’t care, why will a consumer? There are many wonderful ways to augment reality, many wonderful learnings to gain from new sensory input (be it seeing through satellites or feeling, at a distance, when a bridge opens). But this whole cameras, screens, and gobos thing? Tiring. Not to mention: computationally expensive for under-rewarding output.

And so: that talk felt like a solid distillation of a bunch of truths, backed with excellent examples and a lovely thread. Also, I always enjoy watching Kevin talk; he’s a coherent and thoughtful speaker.

As a footnote: I also liked Greg Smith’s astute take on the talk:

…the initial buzz was slightly misleading as it suggested that the presentation was an outright dismissal of AR. I don’t really think this was the case… My reading of the talk is that Slavin is extremely curious about augmenting reality—as praxis—and suggesting we (startups, developers and consumers) need to be considerably more thoughtful in our application/exploration of the emerging medium and consider how it might activate other senses – AR should not distill down to “an overlay for all seasons”.

I think the key takeaway point is in Slavin’s suggestion that “reality is augmented when it feels different, not looks different” – which basically echoes Marcel Duchamp’s (almost) century-old contempt for the ‘retinal bias’ of the art market. If AR development (thus far) is lacking imagination, perhaps the problem is that we’re very much tethering the medium to our antiquated VR pipe dreams and the web browser metaphor.

  • "In AR Monster, you use your iPhone's GPS system and camera to discover and battle more than 600 monsters hidden in the real world. By playing the game in different locations and pointing the handset in different directions, you'll be able to find new kinds of monsters." As is increasingly becoming my reaction to all things AR: "so what?"
  • "…the bullets biodegrade when they hit flesh, leaving nothing behind but a blog post." It is a little sad that, as ever, I'm the millionth person to write "I LOVE VALVE" on the internet, but seriously, as I keep saying: I love Valve so much. (I want my white earbuds).
  • Brilliant.
  • "But then, nobody’s expected to be able to sight-read the Pro guitar tracks. It’s meant for actual students of the guitar. And if you use the game’s slowed-down Practice mode, the game packs the potential to become a real tool for learning to play music." The notion that Harmonix were always a music company, who just happened to make games, becomes ever more true. Proper tab notation, proper strings on the Pro instruments? Well done.
  • "The dwarves hide in the shadows of the trees from the wandering light. The burning tea-light (adult player) moves through the dark forest and tries to find the small dwarves in their hiding places. If a dwarf is touched by the light, it is frozen and not allowed to move anymore. The other dwarves try to release it. To achieve this they must wait until the light has gone far enough so that one of them can join it in the shadow. All the dwarves try to unite under one tree while the candle tries to freeze the dwarves. Who will win, the light or the dwarves?" How the hell did I not know about this? Asymmetric boardgame for adult/children – one player, made of light, hunts down other players, hiding in shadow, shutting their eyes between turns. Magical.
  • "Augmented Shadow, by Joon Moon, 2010. used openframeworks. It's a tabletop interface on where artificial shadows of tangible objects displayed. You can play with the shadows lying on the boundary between the real, virtual, and fantasy." Now stop reading and watch. Beautiful, simple, engaging, playful and storyful all at once.