Augmented reality on the mobile: MoMo Amsterdam #11

Mobile Monday #11 themed “Visions on Mobile” took place on June 1 2009 and had some great speakers: Alan More, Jamais Cascio, Andrew Grill, Joe Pine, Howard Rheingold, and Robert Rice – yes, all guys with visions in the mobile world :)

MoMo#11 = photo by Anne Helmond
Photo by Anne Helmond

As MoMo is a kind of trend-watching event, the main emphasis of this MoMo#11 was on the emerging field of augmented reality. Of course this vision has been around for a long time. Yet prototypes have mostly been very clunky head-mounted displays, or relied on some flat surface to project things on. As our mobile devices have by now arguably become the most ubiquitous technology humans ever carried with them (becoming a third skin, like our clothes are a second skin), they appear the ideal platform for all kinds of new forms of augmented reality in new and unexpected ways. This arguments of course echoes the argument made by Bell and Dourish (“Yesterday’s tomorrows”, PDF) that the vision of ubicomp has in actual practise taken shape in a different way on the mobile phone. Below some of my notes and impressions of MoMo#11.


speaker 1: Alan More – Social Marketing Intelligence (video)

Alan More claims in the future there will be wars about information. In the past identity had been shaped externally. Now there is “psychological self-determination”. The main question in this individualized age then becomes: how to reconnect to other people? In medieval times there were many festivals. Communication = communion (being together). According to More, we are a “we-species”. So new media must be participatory, More argues. Or in Rheingold’s terms “technologies of cooperation”. For mobile marketeers this means that they have to make “search” contextually relevant, because “we live in a world of search”. However, there are privacy issues involved in data scraping. More mentions a number of examples in his talk. Ushahidi in Kenya is a citizen journalism project about political crisis; Japanese link-up service Otetsudai; Japanese girlwalkers.com is a “community of interest” network to buy fashion via mobile phone; BMW winter tires campaign using MMS to remind people to put on winter tires.

Not a brilliant talk but nevertheless interesting to see what marketeers are thinking about when they try to involve mobile media in their strategies.

speaker 2: Jamais Cascio – Mobile Intelligence (video)

Cascio is the writer of Hacking the Earth (available on Lulu). Cascio raises the question what “augmenting the future” could mean. Does it involve wearing augmenting glasses? Taking smart drugs? But it could also mean just taking portable books – like Amazon’s Kindle – with us to make us ‘smarter’ on demand? Cascio sees Twitter as extension of processing knowledge. Cascio gives an example from his own experience, when he got an earthquake message first via Twitter and only after that he felt the earthquake for real. Urbanisation, he says, is also an organization of collective intelligence. Augmented awareness is increasingly based on a combination of sensors in the city and mobile networked technologies. Augmenting reality can also mean blocking out people (a “bozo filter”), or filtering information.

This is were I think it becomes interesting. Because this filtering could also mean filtering away ‘the stranger’, or ‘the serendipitous experience’ of city life. Is that a desirable development? As with most new media technologies, augmented reality brings up the tension between freedom and force. Augmenting reality can on the one hand be seen as a liberation from constraints, e.g. spatio-temporal, social, lack of information and knowledge at hand. Yet on the other hand there is new force involved. To what extend do we have to follow, for instance taking smart drugs when everyone else does, as Cascio himself brings up? Technology is political, Cascio closes his interesting talk. It is a manifestation of our desire to affect change in the world.

I posed a question: “augmenting intelligence” somehow suggests a quantitative improvement in our intelligence. But could it also lead to a decrease of intelligence, for instance our capacity for navigation? Cascio’s answer was something like: we ourselves decide, if we choose not to, then it won’t happen.

speaker 3: Andrew Grill – mobile & advertising (video)

Grill is working on a book “Twitter for non-dummies”. He points to ubiquity of mobile devices, and how it is even more personal(ized) than wallet. Grill mentions various branded applications on the iPhone as playful ways to get a brand on the most personal device people carry with them. Examples are a Gilette beard growing app, Carlsberg beer app, BMW Z4 racing app. he also talks about in-game advertising. The integration of a compass into mobile devices offer new possibilities. An example is the locative/augmented GeoVector: pointing in a direction to see what’s there. Grill finishes his quite commercial talk by saying mobile marketeers should mind the three Ps in mobile marketing: permission, privacy, preference.

speaker 4: Joe Pine – Infinite Possibilities (video)

Pine, co-author of the hugely successful book “The Experience Economy” reiterates that “we were into things, but now into experiences”. This includes the mobile phone. [Although the thing is grossly underestimated in my opinion when it comes to for instance the role of the mobile phone as an artefact for status enhancement in many countries.] Pine refers to Stan Davis who coined term “mass customization” in his book “Future Perfect“. Time and space have become resources instead of existing ‘out there’. Pine takes this idea and moulds it into a 3D model of various realities along axes of matterno-matter; timeno-time; spaceno-space. He calls this model “the multiverse”.

Pine's

Photo by Anne Helmond

Pine has a term for each of the eight quadrants in this model.

real

  • reality (time – space – matter)
  • augmented reality (time – space – no-matter)
  • alternate reality (no-time – space – no-matter)
  • warped reality (no-time – space – matter)

virtual

  • virtuality (no-time – no-space – no-matter)
  • augmented virtuality (no-time – no-space – matter)
  • physical virtuality (time – no-space – matter)
  • mirrored virtuality (time – no-space – no-matter)

Although quite an impressive exercise in analysing the various types of spaces that are brought about by new technologies, I did have my doubts. This model departs from a vision of original space as objective, Euclidian space. This is the domain of (what we used to call) “reality” and it used to have “virtuality” as its opposite. I wonder whether this complex model isn’t reinstating the old binary distinctions between real-virtual, matter (atoms) – non-matter (bits), space – non-space, which recent theories are trying to overcome? I posed the question whether it wouldn’t be better to talk about “hybrid reality” instead, in order to understand how these domains actually blend? Pine answers that his model is an ideal type and that they almost never exist in isolation.

speaker 5: Howard Rheingold – Smart Mobs (video)
Rheingold departs by saying that mobile technologies lower the threshold for collective action. Although he says he doesn’t want to repeat the argument made in “Smart Mobs“, he does exactly this during his otherwise very pleasant talk with many real-world examples that are a real treat after many stretched cases infused with marketing-buzz and hopes. Smart mobs emerge when media amplify cooperation. They can have both beneficial and destructive impact. They are where the PC was in 1980 and internet in 1990. Mobile media are used to harvest collective intelligence and computing power. Rheingold refers to “collective action theory” by Mancur Olsen. Rheingold brings up many examples of collective intelligence being tapped by means of new technologies. One I found interesting in particular. In China the web is “harmonized”, which in Chinese sounds like the word for “river crab”, so many people have put up a picture of a river crab on their websites. This is a nice example of ludic behavior, subversiveness within limits, in relation to new media technologies.

Rheingold feels that the idea of a public sphere is reinforced through social media. But it is not all rosy. There are also nasty examples, like racists organizing via their cellphones to go out beating up non-whites on Brazilian beaches. Rheingold is involved in a new project called cooperationcommons.com.

Under the name “The era of sentient things” Rheingold proceeds by sketching a future world when chips are in everything, information is delivered to places, and the mobile phone acts as remote control, a “window on the world”. Information becomes augmented, situated, and social (Pat Rawlings – SAIC). Some examples Rheingold geives: Wikitude; mobile phone as a metal detector; Pachube, a project harvesting information by using the mobile phone as a sensor; mobiles to track diseases (EPI surveyors); the Grameen phone whereby fishermen in India getting best price (mentioned in Smart Mobs book); open mobile consortium doing Ushahidi; an idea by Intel called ‘Clone Cloud‘ (scroll halfway down or look here) for facial recognition via mobile phones using cloud computing power.

A question from the audience was: is this any good for us? Answer by Rheingold: it depends on who knows what. Does multitasking degrade human attention? What we need is access, media literacy, and participatory culture.

speaker 6: Robert Rice – The Future is calling (video)
The final speaker boldly claims “mobile is dead”. According to Rice, mobile communication is still pretty much 1-to-1 comm. Even Flashmobs have to be started by one person in a top-down fashion, he adds. ‘Smart phones’ mean the convergence of PC and telecommunications. To bring new functionality to the handphone like augmented reality it has to be more immersive. [here I immediately though how this relates the often mentioned property of casualness of the mobile phone: using it while doing something else, see chapter by Fujimoto about nagara in Ito, Okabe, Matsuda (2005) – Personal, Portable, Pedestrian.]. Augmented reality blends the virtual and the real, like in the General Electric commercial. According to Rice, media can be characterized according to whether they are passive, active, interactive, dynamic, or meta. Like journalism, augmented reality has to ask the questions who, what where, why, and how (5Ws+H)? Immersiveness is still being investigated with huge masks and weirds suits. We should also ask: what can go wrong (e.g. isolation)? So what are the “money scenarios” of augmented reality, asks Rice? Micro-transactions, augmented virtual goods, advertisements. “Augmented reality is something entirely different, and will change everything”, Rice claims. Rice calls Sixth Sense by MIT a good idea but the wrong implementation. We have to get away from projecting stuff on flat surfaces. We have to wear glasses!

In conclusion, this Momo#11 meeting was an interesting overview of how some of the main people in the field are thinking about the future of mobile and augmented reality. It made me think about how augmented reality relates to everyday life. Augmented reality has the same hurdle to take as ubicomp, namely that it has to somehow infuse and blend into our everyday reality, yet it can only exist because we can recognize it as not being reality. In this sense, I guess what we have to do is not to try to capture and define its essence, but to think about it as a kind of border-play. Such a ‘ludic approach’ to conceptualizing these developments may shed new light on how these technologies interact with the mobile city.

  

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  1. It is good to see people taking seriously the ways in which technology is changing our relation to reality itself. I am particularly interested in the way that mobil technologies and the internet are changing journalism which was touched upon in the discussion of mobil devices and advertising, although many of the other sections have implications for it as well. There are some great interviews on the subject at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69

  2. Per the Cascio piece, “Cascio’s answer was something like: we ourselves decide, if we choose not to, then it won’t happen.” Ouch, sounds like he’s drunk a bit too much of the technology freedom cool-aid. Of course, our ability to choose to use e-mail or not is much less today than say 20 or 30 years ago. Certain communication modes can cannibalize their predecessors and you are right to think our own navigation skills may get dumbed down as our oral storytelling (Walter Ong) and even memory have through digital devices. _Technopoly_ opens with a nice episode from Plato in which handwriting is offered by a God with the caveat that memory will decline. Of course, I’m enjoying this memory taking technology right now, but we should at least couch innovations such as augmented reality in careful terms of how they might be detrimental. In our work, we are still striving for AR media that puts you more in touch with our surroundings and serendipitous encounters than cut us off. I think the real “bozo filter” innovation may come in the form of cattle prod that lets us buzz people obnoxiously yelling into their phones in public places and otherwise tuning out important aspects of their surroundings.

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Michiel de Lange
Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project (www.nomadicmilk.net). He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds. Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.