The future, or the end of augmented reality

CONTEXT: Studium Generale – KABK art academy The Hague

Having a background in computer science, I was a relief for me to discover the virtual world of Second Life during my time at the Gerrit Rietveld art acacemy. In this programmable world I was able to create any kind and any scale of interactive installation, without the investments in costly materials. I only needed to invest time programming them. I give up my attempts to innovate the painting genre, and I started experimenting with the possibilities within the virtual world and I explored the boundaries too, with various hybrid reality installations bridging the virtual world and the ‘real’ outside world. But with the arrival of augmented reality browsers for the smartphone, my attempt to escape Second Life finally succeeded, because with mobile “AR” I was able to bring virtual life onto the streets. A first manifestation of this kind was a virtual flashmob on the Dam square in Amsterdam. Being more than just than just a visual add-on to reality, the virtual flashmob truly impacted the physical space. A flashmob-like group of spectators formed a circle around a central spot of emptyness marked by QR-codes on the ground where the actual virtual flashmob happened.

To be able to influence the physical domain anywhere in the world by means of virtual appearances, is a powerful tool. Even more so, because these days anything can be a ‘marker’ triggering AR. Without the need to go to a spot and visually modifying it by placing markers, the potential reach radically more broader. As is proven by projects such as Paaltwitteren, turning any OV-chip check-in posts in the Netherlands as nodes of a many-to-many communication structure. Using GPS to position augmented reality gives an even bigger extent of freedom. Anything is possible anywhere. For example, placing virtual wild animals across the city centre Eindhoven and organising safari tours by car, with a car-stereo providing sounds synchronised to the virtual animals spotted during the tour. To invite more people to express their creativity in the parallel virtual public space, I launched a layar called Cityshapes. It’s a multi-user location-based virtual sculpturing toolkit which turns the world into a DIY space in which anyone can contribute anything. Although it sometimes takes a big safari vehicle to let people notice it. Or picking the right context can help.

An uninvitedly organised augmented reality exhibition inside the MoMA museum in New York was a happening within the right context to deliver a message about the new radical possibilities in the unbounded AR space. Augmented reality can be everywhere, litteraly. The artwork “BiggAR” exists all over the planet. It consists of 7.463.185.678 virtual cubes floating in the skies around the world. Augmented reality as concept art? Yes, but then for real. In contrast to creating the world’s biggest virtual artwork, I’ve explored the other conceptual extreme as well. Being the worlds’ first one dimensional artwork, nearly invisible the artwork “1px” was exhibited at the waterfront of the ICA building during the Boston Cyberarts festival. I’ve even created truly invisible AR. Not because AR is by default invisible when looking from a certain point of perspective (i.e. not looking through a digital device). Invisible AR exists on the map, but still is invisible. AR art for insiders.

Sometimes, not seeing a virtual creation can be a matter of location. People at the “infiltr.AR” launch event only saw a red dot on a map, indicating the moment when someone in or near the White House saw our virtual balloon. Probably as a result of the ongoing signals sent out on Twitter and facebook about the “ongoing virtual infiltration of the White House and Pentagon”, aiming to trigger some alarm bells over there. That’s still a major aspect of any AR project: finding ways to be noticed. Because unfortunately, there’s no proper notifier on our smartphones yet, which has to do with the fact that there’s no unified AR universe yet. The battle by Apple and Google for the ownership, control and commercial exploitation of the AR space is yet to begin. Not awaiting that moment, I’m already creating content for the hybrid reality of the future, mimicking intended functionality with tricks appropriate to our present day situation. Not very impactfull yet, but with enough people being aware of the existence of my virtual traffic light on the island Terschelling, people stopping to view the traffic light will block the narrow bike lane causing the virtual traffic light to start functioning for real.

For artist, augmented reality is an enabler in many ways. First of all, it’s a new material, with infinite possibilitites. But even though that’s a fact, an audience needs to understand the dynamics and aesthetics of AR art to value it. Furthermore, people will have to get used to the fact that AR is real even though it’s non-tangable. The difference between real and not real is not a matter of material, not a matter of touch. Think of the interaction with the global virtual toad colony of artist Will Pappenheimer which is trough licking. I’ve never touched nor licked a Picasso! Besides being a infinite material, AR enables an infinite use of space. Not just location-wise, but the placement of AR is permanent, infinite. Unless a DELETE buton is implemented, as was the case in the Battling Pavilions project happening in the Giardini area of the Venice Biennial in 2011.

In the same year, visitors of the Lowlands music festival were ‘augmentized’ using a bluescreen. The festival was documented on the spot, for eternity. A real-live augmentation method was applied on Tibb the AR rabbit at the STRP festival. Moving in front of a bluescreen, the rabbit was generating live animations, viewed in augmented reality across the world. From Venice to New York to Veldhoven. It wasn’t as fancy as the usual 3D animating dinosaur, often appearing in AR, which isn’t really indicating the full potential of AR. In ‘one way’ AR experiences, the audience is being just a viewer. But we live in a data-reality, on which augmented reality browser is a viewer. Creating exchanges unique to a location and the people present there and anywhere else in the global AR space, is a possibility demonstrated by the recent re-launch of a 3D surround version of PONG. The AR version of the utterly basic game is now multi-player, allowing you to point to Chili to shoot a pixel (a 3D pixel) to someone there. Being unable to compete with big companies employing teams of designers, modelers and programmers, by attempts are not advanced in their graphical manifestation, but even with plain speech bubbles appearing on random passers-by throughout the city of Utrecht, a location-based interactive story can be told. There’s hidden world of stories surrounding us

Standings amongst people pointing their phones around for about two years, I was starting to see their movements as a dance. It triggered me to cooperate with choreographer Marjolein Vogels to structure the movement into a choreography by letting people follow a floating virtual cube using their mobile phone. It wouldn’t be AR if it wouldn’t be a globally connected experience, so although it didn’t look like a proper flashmob consisting of a bunch of people getting together on a square, this was in fact the biggest permanent flashmob in the world.

For now, the mobile phone is the foremost tool to experience AR. I mock on this phenomenon by creating the Global Choreography, but at the same time I realise it’s a questionable situation to see everybody obsessively hidden within their personal mobile sphere. Now is the time to make remarks objecting to that, before it’s too late. Soon the unobtrusive augmented reality goggles will make it an invisible unobtrusive practise integrated within our digital day-to-day reality. I’ve been flyering against virtual art at the Venice Biennale. The same Biennial I was infiltrating with my art. It’s the benefit of an artist to be allowed to be inconsistent. Instead of just being against obsessive use of mobile phones, I’ve been seeking solutions too. “Meet Your Stranger” brings people together through their devices with a bundle of any thinkable present day technical innovation: GPS-detection, augmented reality and a interactive scripts. But with humans as an extension to the technology, instead of the other way around.

AR is a social space in which global reach coexists with localized experiences. It is in fact a result of a world which has become semi-digital. Soon, it will not longer be relevant nor justifyable to call something ‘augmented reality’, as the reality of the future will be a hybrid mix of the real and the ‘virtual’. That’s already the case today. Digital stored content is lives on lattitude and longitude. Locations are being stored and labeled, based on their GPS-coordinate or based on a visual marker. The integration is back and forth. It will not take long until the term ‘augmented reality’ will be just an on/off switch on the camera of your smart device, be it a phone, glasses or contact lenses. Digital additions on or off? At one point, it will be the question whether you see the ‘real’ reality when you switch of the virtual additions.