When reality gets “augmented” as opposed to complex

22 Dec

As I am marking my MA student’s dissertations, I am noticing that a lot of them are very excited about the Augmented Reality apps that they can now download on the mobile phones. While they use them to socialize in real space, and find the new local hip bar, I am starting to think that the same functionalities applied to i-docs could see the emergence of a new breed of locative i-docs.

As I was researching a little how AR has been used in museums and educational contexts I came across this great article by Gary Hays. His article reviews different examples of what he calls “situated documentaries via Augmented Reality”. I propose that you read his blog for a full review of the genre, but what attracted my attention is the coming launch of Londinium on the 25th of July 2011.

Londinium is the result of a collaboration between London History Museum and the History Channel. It is an app that allows people to walk in the streets of the capital and see on their iPhones’screens how ancients roman used to live. Through augmented reality video, layered into the streets, you will see gladiators fighting, builders creating and listen to Romans talking (apparently you will hear the voices of the forum around you as you walk!).

Now… this is clearly a nice education app…but is it an i-doc? I do not want to go into this debate of education versus narrative. If there are historical documentaries I do not see why an AR app would not count as a historical i-doc… but, anyhow, my point is another one: is layering reality the same as augmenting it?

Augmenting suggests “adding”. Obviously an app such as Londinium “adds” life from the past to life as it is today. I get this. But is this past not still present, although not clearly seen-able? Is the past not just a layer that makes the present possible and that is therefore still present itself? Is reality not just “complex” and “dense” because of all this layering?

When soundscapes were allowing us to listen to voices of the past, in the early locative documentaries (such as 34 North by 118 West), we were talking of a “scripted space” (Lev Manovich)  or a “narrative archeology” (Jeremy Hight)… how can such space suddenly become “augmented” through video layers emerging on our geo-tagged iPhones? Is the assumption that video is “adding” (augmenting) more than sound?

My impression is that the arrival of  AR apps on our iPhones has created the usual techno frenzy where “video AR” is “better” than geotagged sound, and therefore “more”. This is obviously to be taken with a pinch of salt. To me the fact that the extra layering is “video” just adds a visual representation on top of “real” one. Yes it is sexy, and so? How can this add something valuable to a possible i-doc experience?

Now, here is my take – for what it is worth: we all know, after reading McLuhan, that acoustic space is better at dealing with layers of sound – as they can co-habit creating a richer space… while vision tends to exclude layering (we only focus on one thing per time)… could it be that Video AR can blur that old distinction between acoustic and visual space? If that was possible, then the real added value of Video AR would not only be to distract our kids showing ancient Romans while we are in a traffic jam, but to gradually blur both ac0ustic and visual space into a complex space. This complex space is a layered one, not an augmented one. It is reality as it has always been: complex, layered, in constant movement and situated. The novelty is in the fact that technology allows us to visualize a little part of this complexity. Video AR does not “augment” our reality, if anything it “simplifies it”, but still… such simplification is a step ahead from the normal assumption that reality stops at what we can see and hear with our senses.

When I am stuck in a traffic jam I tend to forget that this is only one layer of the reality that I am in. Although it would do me lots of good, I tend to forget that around me are years of history, maybe also the becoming part of my future, I forget layers of thoughts, of smells, of cosmic causalities and of other people’s presence. If a Londinium app can show me the legs of an ancient legionnaire, it might distract me, but it will not solve my traffic jam frustrations, nor give me a full visualization of the moment I am witnessing and yet… but I will be one step closer to that complex reality that dictates every single moment of my life.

What I am suggesting is that Video AR offers to i-docs the possibility to document layers of reality. For me its potential is not to augment reality, but to offer a way to document some of its complexity.

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