Design Fiction Chronicles: Aram Bartholl's Vision of Augmented Reality

Still moment from Aram Bartholl‘s workshop and project WoW an “intervention in public space that uses computer play-worlds as a means of calling attention to the changing ways people deal with privacy and identity in the public sphere.” In my mind, this is one of the better depictions of what the widely anticipated but really super deflating future of “augmented reality” will be like. It’s funny, but I think this vision embeds an obvious critique of some sort.

In discussions these days about Augmented Reality — really vintage high technology if there ever was such — I am reminded of Aram Bartholl‘s workshop and project WoW, which is quite relevant. For some reason — I suspect Freemason conspiracy of the highest order — Augmented Reality is making some sort of bid to regain its previous stature as “the future” of, well — something. What gives? (I really want to know.) It had a chance in 1995 or something, as well as lots of half-baked promises, popular magazine articles, and crappy overpriced plastic eyeglasses that’ll enhance your movie watching experiences that you could buy out of those catalogs you find in the backseat pocket on airplanes.

Why has it come back? Okay — now I’m asking the question seriously because it seems like people are spending serious money hiring people and setting up things to get back into this “hold-up-a-screen-and-be-told-what-you-could-read-in-a-tour-guide” kind of high technology. There must be a better way to spend money to create a better world, no? (Answers to this inquiry will be taken seriously. I’m only snarky because the afternoon coffee has taken hold, but good.)

Aram Bartholl’s WoW project explores public space depicted with some of the interface elements of many multiplayer role-playing games. The name derives from World of Warcraft, perhaps the canonical such game. I tried it once, for about two hours, maybe? It just didn’t take hold in the least, but that’s a personal judgement. I don’t necessarily go for that sort of thing.

Besides this point, which is perhaps an allergic reaction to all the hype that surrounded the game a year or so ago — with it being the new golf and crap like that, which I would not wish on any earnest creative effort — there was lots of attention paid to the bloated interfaces of the game. It’s nearly illegible as far as I can tell. But, literacy is learned and in the eye of the literate. If the literacies of the future force one to adjust to “reading” the world as a “dashboard” of this sort:

Joi Ito’s crazy, over-the-top WoW dashboard screen thing. Legibility taken to a whole new territory.

Well, then it will be a weird world of data points, avatars, 140 character conversations and emoticons.


Friday April 03, 15.42.33

A weird secured box — a database of physical materials or something — found without trying on the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland. How much more augmentation does reality really need? I mean..

Aram’s project, in my mind, playfully pokes at the vision of a near future world of such things augmenting our daily, pedestrian realities. I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to the levels of alteration to quotidian life by glasses that tell you compass bearings or map sites of interest. All that kind of stuff that would turn spatial experiences into some kind of database inquiry seem very much different from what I enjoy about the world when it is mixed with humans — curious interpretations of objects and moments that are not salted with uniform resource locators, pop-ups, soft synthesized voices telling me that I’ve got mail or to turn right at the next intersection. Sometimes, I like getting a bit lost, or learning my way about a new place. (That might be my own rationalizing — I get lost with such a frequency that lost is my new found.) I enjoy doing the urban scout adventures in places to look at the world slightly differently, and in a way, I am afraid, no algorithm in some augmented reality telephone-glasses can enhance.

Here’s a video that Aram and his workshop attendees produced for their activities in Gent, Belgium. (Thanks Aram, for the lovely and perpetually relevant project.)

WoW from aram bartholl on Vimeo.

See also Mixing Realities.

12 thoughts on “Design Fiction Chronicles: Aram Bartholl's Vision of Augmented Reality”

  1. “I for one welcome our Dashboard overlords…”

    One of the things I forgot during our chat on the South Bank last week was the addiction involved with exposure to such “data overload.” Looking at Joi’s WoW screen–and I’ve spent less time than you playing that game–I am reminded of my own efforts in peripheral awareness “injection”, if you will: with every data source I ad, my addiction grows. I want more, more more, and I go back more more often for another hit. Did anyone tweet/facebook/flickr in the last 45 seconds? Has anyone bookmarked anything interesting? Did I get an IM? How about an email? Was a SVN commit made? Is the rain coming? What’s the time in Tokyo?

    These are all things I want in my peripheral awareness. Or do I?

    My eyes and head hurt. I think I need to lie down… 😉

    But none of that has directly much to do with AR (though I see the extrapolation). Not be cynical about it but I am quite looking forward to having stuff like this available to me:


  2. “Sometimes, I like getting a bit lost, or learning my way about a new place.”

    And then you turn it off. Gah. This reaction is about as annoying and as useless as people who, when confronted with ebook readers, say “but I like the smell of books and/or turning pages”.

    Also, 1995 tech and 2009 tech are a wee bit different. See also: Moore’s law.

  3. Augmented reality is coming back because of mobile Internet, which didn’t exist in 1995. A combination of Google Android and StreetView, in particular, is a precursor to augmented reality. One more place to insert text ads, or virtually-painted arrows on the street showing which way to walk to the nearest Chinese restaurant that paid for the arrow placement. Google wants to be everywhere that people search and businesses advertise… and that includes the 3D real world that we walk around in.

    There will probably also be some weird kind of intersection between social networking and augmented reality, maybe a 3D Twitter where people walk around with “what I’m doing” status updates hovering above their heads, or mood labels.

  4. Augmented Reality, a first person view of local data about things and places offers a natural user interface to the deep meaning of where we are at any given moment and useful alternative to potentially cognitive dissonant views of a 2D map which shows the data from a distant aerial perspective

    I agree that “Tour guide” content seems like an impoverished design center for Augmented Reality. Currently available views of AR from services like Wiktude or Point and Find are really limited by sparse data offerings. In the meantime, We’re just beginning to see services like google and others begin aggregation of millions of standard geocoded objects in open formats like geoRSS and KML, but the true value of AR will only become visible as data becomes precisely geocoded in three dimensions ~ latitude, longitude, and elevation, and devices are able to similarly recognize it’s location in 3D position including pitch and yaw by comparing a visible point cloud with a stored database of points like 3D city models or microsoft photosynth images. the good news is that both KML and Microsoft VE have semantics to describe the precise location of 3D data and media objects, when they become available.

    The net intermediate result might end up in the kind of cluttered UI in the WoW image, but over time, we should be able overcome visible clutter by contextually processing and filtering based on personal preferences, biases, and situational requirements.

    Good topic!!



  5. A cynic would suggest it comes out of google as a way of explosively ramping up the ads they can serve. Man, a thing like this would be spam paradise. Just imagine walking around all day with a gazillion intrusive ads spooged all over your field of vision. Google’s stock would shoot to 10,000.

    Kids would love it, but for everybody else…why? The virtue of a smartphone is you only look at it when you choose to. A smartphone display isn’t plastered all over your field of vision 24/7. And you can do anything with a smartphone you could do with one of these VR setups, just a little less intrusively. That makes the smartphone better. You can’t both drive and navigate the internet on a smartphone and a sane person doesn’t try, but, boy, you could sure see people crashing their cars when the visual overlay from their VR setup confuses the hell out of them. Or for that matter, walking straight into a London city bus because their VR display distracted them.

    It seriously does not make sense to enter text using VR data gloves and a headset. That’s what a netbook is for. The web is still mostly text. 99 times out of 100, on any website, the images are ad pollution. VR just isn’t that useful for dealing with text.

  6. “…in a way, I am afraid, no algorithm in some augmented reality telephone-glasses can enhance.”
    What if this hypothetical algorithm wasn’t some mass-produced, one size fits all model – but was an algorithm grow especially for you? Trained on your habits gathered from context sensing sensors, designed/evolved to help you when you want, in the way you’d want it to? It’s the next step up from an on/off switch, which is always going to be there anyway.

    I enjoy getting lost and anticipate doing so in the future. I’m also fed up with waiting for the computer industry to offer what I want-so I’m going to throw together some of this growing-ever-cheaper tech and build myself a wearable computer system with some interesting sensors attached to a microcontroller/multiplexer. Between things like this, the Maker movement and the buzz around AR on smartphones we should have some good data soon that can point us towards the best interfaces for ubiquitous computing.

    By next year you’ll be able to buy one of the most successful homebrew variants in kitset form or fully assembled, whether the big companies offer it yet or not. However, it’ll be some time before most people want to wear their cellphone and get nagged by a helpful bit of software.

    1. Yes, this, I agree would be quite a bit more intriguing if I could run my own algorithm, which is, actually, what I do even without some affordance like the technology that is described around AR. For example, a combination of paper maps (both real and perhaps a bit broken, like the crappy tour maps you get that only outline specific sites of common interest rather than weird back alley things), some kind of navigation device like the Drift Deck or some suggestions for directions to interesting places or other strategy for exploration.

      So, there are lots of ways to augment reality, which is my point. I’m just curious why the old fashioned kind of display + computer sort has taken hold again. By “again” I would remind my kind and generous readers (all, like..17 of you, bless your souls..) that I spent my first graduate school experience working in a Virtual Reality lab, so my history is to have gone through this moment when the world was going to change because of some technology that never really made sense to normal human beings, except for a prop for some bad science fiction films and, The lesson learned there was that the coupling between normal human social practices and the instruments/technologies that provide continuity of those social practices is something that engineers simply have no clue about. A justification for doing something has to be more than ” ’cause its cool ” for it to be legible to normal human beings. I’m less than convinced this time around, and happy to learn while being proven wrong. I have no hard-and-fast stake in this stuff..I’m a subject of history, whither will we go toward paper, OLED, pharmacology or wherever for our near future ways of augmenting our realities.

  7. I am not sure why you are so critical about “augmented reality”.

    Maybe its the term itself, which you don’t like, because the idea has been around for ages.

    Just look at the signs used to mark hiking trails ( They have been used for more then one century in old Europe.

    Not all scenarios for augmented reality must be based around user identities or must be related to Second Live or World of Warcraft.

    1. Mostly because critique is a useful strategy for rethinking orthodoxy, I would say. I get snarky on the blog because I usually blog in the morning, when the mind is anxious to participate in the world and the coffee has taken good, strong hold of my senses.

      I agree that refashioning the world has been going on…forever. Even describing the world as divided up between things that are natural, built, man-made, etc., is a way of augmenting the worlds around us. This, I agree with.

      There’s history here, too. Trail marking and so forth — these are good examples, with all kinds of motivations and uses that may not be quite the same as the latter-day augmentation of reality that I think people imagine when they say “AR” or when they say “Augmented Reality.” That sort of AR usually is the kind that has swerved through things like mobile- pervasive- ubiquitous- computing and the hope that networks will leak out across the earth with the speed and stability and cost that is only ever imaginary. It has the scenarios of flat displays or glasses that one orients onto the world, with pop-up graphics and text, etc. In other words, not hot-iron etched trail markings or sign posts, etc. So, these distinctions matter, I think, in the specific case of “AR” — distinctions that trace back through from the new kinds of visual and in-world literacies that evolve from networked worlds.

  8. I think some of your reticence, which in large part I share, has to do with the fact that there seems to be no way, currently, for people to find spaces that are congenial to their own preferences and desires, unless those preferences and desires are isomorphic with those displayed by the most technology-driven among us. We’re all forced, willy-nilly, to live in the garden of the techno-enthusiasts.

    That is to say, we’ve been maneuvered into this odd space where we’re somehow forced to justify the non-adoption of some new technology, at the risk of being labeled a Luddite (or worse), forced to make some affirmative case for leaving the things the way they are.

    As repent_harlequin (ha!) points out above, part of this has to do with a neat dovetailing between the technical affordances of augmented reality and the needs of certain institutions residing in late capitalism. Part of this has to do with the inherent shear in speed between that of technical development and that of (personal and social) reflection. And indubitably, as far as I’m concerned, part of the odd nature of these discussions is down to the fact that unpeeling these questions is very often personally uncomfortable: any honest accounting for the relative gains and losses sure to be imposed by ubiquitous augmentation forces us to reflect on our own privileges as those privileges are distributed in the technosocial milieu that we live in.

    And people just don’t like to do that. They get defensive, they hide behind rhetoric or jargon, they appeal to authority or the aura of inevitability, they call you names – you see it right here in these comments. This is what happens when technological literacy is allowed to reside solely in the class of people who benefit from the widespread adoption of technology, and why I believe we should work to extend such literacy as far outward into the far larger pool of “(l)users” as is practicable.

  9. As repent_harlequin says, not glasses, but maybe phones.

    You could have a database of signed dated GPS-tagged notes, viewable on a map on a phone. But few would use it if they can’t add notes for free, and if they can add notes for free it’ll fill up with stuff like “MARY LIVES HERE AND SHE SUCKS!!~!1”. Worse, no one will pay to put ads into it, and you have to pay for the server somehow. Maybe some subculture would love it so much they’d pay $5/month for it? Who?

    NYC cops might use a map of crimes color-coded by type or recency. Their car computers may already do that.

    Hikers might use one if they can get reception. Or maybe if they can just get GPS out there, sync it to a computer before the trip to read other people’s notes, and after the trip to upload yours.

    Anyone else?

    Or maybe there’s something to glasses. William Gibson’s “Spook Country” has a cool bit about public art installations viewable only through glasses, which could be huge and could be animated. You could go there, put on the glasses while you wandered around and checked out the art, then take them off before you leave. They’d have to be cheap though, and I don’t know if epaper or other technologies will make that happen anytime soon.

Comments are closed.