PICNIC ’09 report 1: augmented reality

This year’s PICNIC (September 23-25 2009 in Amsterdam) had some really great sessions and speakers. The Mobile City couldn’t possibly attend everything. Therefore I will zoom in on two sessions that were particularly interesting for our themes. One on Wednesday Sept. 23, about augmented reality. And the other on Friday Sept. 25, about eco-mapping. In this post I report on the first.

augmented reality

Augmented reality (from now on: AR) adds one or more layers of – mostly visual – information to physical space. Other than Virtual reality (VR), which tries to supplant the everyday experience with an immersive virtual experience, AR’s ideal is to blend virtual information more or less seamlessly into what people are normally seeing. AR has evolved from clunky head-mounted displays, to glasses, to even integration with contact lenses. However, in actual practice information is now often projected on screens, e.g. the car windshield or on the most ubiquitous screen we carry with us all the time: the mobile phone. For a read-up on AR see Lev Manovich – “The Poetics of Augmented Space” (2005) (MS Word alert).

Under the name Augmented City Lab, Waag Society, 7scenes, and Layar organized a plenary morning session and afternoon workshop, moderated by Ronald Lenz (Waag Society & 7Scenes). Speakers in the plenary session were: Frank Kresin (Waag Society), Raimo van der Klein (Layar), Kevin Slavin (Area/Code), Rick Batelaan (City directorate for transport, Amsterdam), Ben Cerveny (Vurb).


Frank Kresin

Frank Kresin posed the question how do you bring cultural heritage to people who don’t visit musea? One possible answer is to use the urban landscape itself as an exhibition space. The city is already rich in content and physical landmarks. Why not use these elements to “create a unified experience”, a “new active and social space with on-demand info for city residents, ‘culturists’, and tourists”? Kresin gave an overview of some of the ‘creative learning’ projects already done by Waag Society and 7Scenes which use some form of AR. He finished by summing up a number of practical challenges in order to meet such aims as “deepening experiences, improving accessibility of content, expanding audiences, and stimulating entrepreneurship”.

Although AR is in its infancy, there is potential for learning experiences. As a more critical remark, it seems that the idea of turning the city into a ‘unified experience’ contradicts the city’s inherent heterogeneity of both places and people. The target groups Kresin mentioned are al very different in how they see and use the city. How to make one “unified experience” for individual people, let alone for all urbanites at once? Why would you want that in the first place? This may be a problem of AR in general: who’s reality is augmented? And what kind of informational objects are inserted into everyday reality?

Raimo van der Klein

The second talk was by Raimo van der Klein, one of the founders of Layar, an AR app for Android phones. He positions AR as a playful “experience medium” for marketing purposes. According to Van der Klein, involvement is the preferred method of current marketing, above tell and show. Van der Klein tells how AR induces a certain skepticism about ‘realness’, making people wonder whether what they are seeing is real or not? He further announced a new version of Layar, which now includes 3D modeled objects. Later I joined a demonstration on the large grass field of the Westerpark. On the screen of an Android phone you could see large windmills turning, an airplane passing over, and a 3D version of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’.

Kevin Slavin

Kevin Slavin is critical of augmented city assumptions that more information is always better. AR will never win in terms of ‘polygone count’. It will never make the augmented city look as real as its physical counterpart. This is called the ‘immersive fallacy’ (a term coined by Salen en Zimmerman). Moreover, there are other senses than just vision. An interesting example Slavin mentions is a project by Columbia University called SiteLens (2009) (PDF). This project presents the presence of toxic substances as a digital visualization. It does not try to integrate these visuals into reality but clearly demarcates its separation from reality by using bright visuals. Slavin further warns for the ‘uncanny valley’. This is a term used in robot research. When robots become too human-like we tend to feel eeriness. Same thing with AR: it’s there but it isn’t there. AR developers must avoid this uncanny gap and games are a way out. Games have been ‘augmented’ from the start. When we are playing we know we are playing.

This is interesting in the light of discussions about ‘hybrid space’: the idea that social processes in the physical and digital realm merge. But do they really become indistinguishable, mixing to grey? Or are boundaries between them still present and important?

Rick Batelaan

Next up was Rick Batelaan form the municipality of A’dam. He presented a trial of the Personal Travel Assistant, an application promoting public transport by delivering real-time location-based personalized travel information. Depending on where you are, what time, were you are going, and your personal preferences, you get a targeted travel advise. You can also share your travel plans with buddies, enabling you to travel together.

This type of application is not strictly about adding new experiential layers over reality, yet is certainly ‘augments’ mobility with on the fly info. To me it seems a good example of a very pervasive idea underlying many location-based services: optimizing the individual experience of the city. The city is implicitly seen as a hindrance that has to be overcome in order to get form A to B. Urban space is taken as a space for moving through, not for dwelling in. This view seeks to minimize ‘lost’ moments, moments of pause, potential situations for serendipitous encounters and contemplation. One might also wonder whether in the longer run such a shift works against people who don’t use the city as a site for optimizing personal mobility, but for lingering.

Another interesting issue is the shifting perceptions of clock time these services may involve. Instead of depending on precise location and time schedules (12:30 pm at the central station) this service approximates duration and range (still 15 minutes to cycle the last 1000 meters to catch your train). It has been argued public transport made the time schedule necessary in the first place, and the automobile partially undid this fixation on scheduled time. Mobile media technologies are shared among the technologies that bring about a weakening of time schedules. Will mobile services like the Personal Travel Assistant extend this ‘weakening of time’ to what might be one of the last strongholds of scheduled clock time: public transport mobility?

Ben Cerveny

The last speaker, Ben Cerveny, gave a whirlwind overview of the history of cities. Cities began as isolated cells along favorable points. Then these cells became connected networks. For instance Amsterdam as a trade city in the Golden Age (17th c.). This gave rise to the metropolis. Cerveny explored the idea that when urbanites express their individual experiences via networks, these experiences can be aggregated into an image of the city, which can then be fed back into people’s experiences. Cerveny then jumped from individual urbanites to the city as a whole. He argued online data sets about flows of resources, products and citizens in cities, when aggregated and recombined, form a kind of self-awareness of the city. This ‘sentient city’ can perceive its own environments, and interact with other cities. Cerveny further criticized the fact that AR is mostly location-agnostic. It brings information to places, but not according to the ‘personality of the place’. Cerveny is interested in somehow showing the “moods of the metropolis”, close to Ben Russell’s 1999 future vision of being able to find sadness in NYC (see his Headmap Manifesto – PDF). Cerveny also wants to trace social networks of cities. Some cities share more with other cities abroad than with towns in their own country. How do these networks look?

Inspiring as it seems, I do wonder what Cerveny’s idea of awareness entails? For one, doesn’t awareness need some sort of intentionality invested in agents (i.e. human intelligence)? Then who designs intentional agents for the sentient city? What political deliberations and processes underly city sensing projects?


The talks and ensuing discussion brought up a number of interesting issues dealing with AR’s place in the city. One thing is ‘attention’: AR is meant not to replace one’s primary view of everyday reality but only add certain layers of information to it. Yet in practice when people are presented with screen-based information they tend to focus their attention on the screen and not their environment. Cerveny argued AR should not replace your primary view but exist on the side, as a ‘glance’, something when applied to your social network is also called ‘ambient awareness’.

Another question raised is what happens to publicness? Cerveny proposed to redefine the notion. There is already broad ‘media literacy’ about the public domain in digital space but not in physical space. Maybe this should grown. With this proposition Cerveny comes close to the idea of understanding public space in terms of a physical, urban commons for which we collectively carry responsibility (see the interview with Mark Shepard posted on this blog).

As a final general remark, this session made me rethink the merit of stacking ever more informational layers on everyday reality. As already said, AR and location-based services often depart from the wish to optimize individual experience and choices. This is frequently described in quantitative words: more, better, ‘enriching’, and so on. But not all mediation of the city just adds. The can also act as filtering devices. Instead of phrasing these developments solely in terms of ‘augmentation’, one can also think of them in terms of subtraction: a ‘diminished reality’. This needn’t necessarily be understood in moral terms: what is being lost through AR? what does it take away of everyday reality? It may also be an aid in achieving what city dwellers have always been doing: make their city smaller and more manageable.

Read more about this workshop in Assia Kraan’s report.

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.