The search for immersion in Geomedia

Imagine if photography was only used to create images for product catalogues. No artistic use came to mind, no aesthetics deemed nesessary.

It’s not a strange thought experiment. This, following Bolter and Grusin’s book Remediation, is roughly speaking what happens to any new medium when it enters society. Painting for example didn’t really start going all experimental on us until the photocamera was introduced, and it saw its use as a documentary indexical medium reduced. Photography, in turn, didn’t evolve it’s own expressive language until years later. The same with video, it took the likes of Vertov and other experimenters to turn a camera into an expressive device.

If we concider locative media a medium, then I have been waiting for a strong expressive culture to surface for over 10 years now.

Functionalism vs Expression

Obviously the first question would be “how would you delineate this medium?”. I concider its core to be about collections of spaces that are linked together in a meaningful, preferably narrative, way. A single expressive youtube video linked to a spot doesn’t cut it for me. I’m really looking for a hypernarrative storytelling medium where, like books or film, we can have plotstructures, exposition, twists and turns, a language through which the user is immersed and dragged along in an epic tale of love, anger, and everything in between.

There are some great examples in this search for immersion. The “locative literature” Landvermesser project comes to mind, in which bookwriters were asked to create narrratives in the city of Berlin. More recently Michael Epstein’s company Untravel Media has shown that with time and effort wonderful experiences can be created. But this type of usage hasn’t entered the larger public imagination, and is mostly the product of cultural institutions.

In the meantime there has been an explosion of startups that just aim to bring you Location Based Services. Google, Foursquare, Yelp, the list goes on and on, and they all want to give you useful information. Functionalism, in short, still very much trumps expression.

So what has caused this slant in the landscape?

An annoying thought is that locative media might never reach the level of immersion film can offer in the first place. With video we get ‘sucked in’, our bodies sitting in the chair like zombies while our minds are suspended in disbelief. This is difficult for locative media to do, as public space isn’t very zombie-friendly. There are things we might walk into while we sleepwalk through the digital dreamlayer placed on top of the city. In the messy ‘life out there’, many unexpected occurences could disrupt the suspension of disbelief. Sound, so far, has seemed most compatible with being in the city, and this has resulted in a lot of sound-based locative projects.

I suspect another reason for this slow development lies in the locatedness itself. In a world where the internet’s ability to offer content ‘anytime, anywhere’ has become synonymous with consumer freedom, locative media connection to ‘somewhere’ feels almost limiting. For example, if I create a locative thriller set in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, then it’s only really open to experience if you are there, in Amsterdam. Like a theater play, it would take non-trivial effort to ‘re-stage’ that same story in another city and thus open it up to a larger audience. This limits their easy reproducability, and thus potential profitability. Something unheard of for a digital medium.

Towards mainstream GeoMedia

But it shouldn’t matter. We also live in an age of mass-production of media, where amateur creations aren’t just possible, they’re popular. We could have wonderful stories in every city if we create accessible online tools, and, more importantly, get it into people’s heads that they could create ‘things’ in public space. Let the wisdom of the crowds have a crack at it.

I imagine a girl who, for their 2nd anniversary, creates a literal walk down memory lane for her boyfriend.

A Sherlock Holmes story along the london wharfs, where every turn you take literally takes the story in another direction.

A commemorative drive along the city’s ringroad that tells of Gary’s tragic life as a pan-european trucker.

I long for serious mainstream expressive tools around location-indexing technology. A photoshop for city streets. As the map below shows, I suspect it will be Silicon Valley that will get there first. Already tools like SCVNGR, The Hidden Park and Broadcastr are heading towards the expressive side of the scale, or at least allow space for it. I’m certain they’ll find a market there.

Click to enlarge

— Map of geo-tools, click to enlarge —

But, beyond tools, what must be developed in the next 10 years is a shift in perception. Geo-media would allow an expressiveness that is local and authentic, but people have to know they have this option. In time, and with due marketing, they will. Because knowing in which nearby restaurant I should eat is only half of the story geo-media should tell.

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Hallo Tijmen,
    Nice read! Were you inspired by Wirelessstories?
    One sidenote; I think public space is much more zombie-friendly than most people think. People can immerse themselves quickly and with the right story told ‘life out there’ plays along astonishly well. Arjan van Sorge tells it better than I can: http://www.soundtrackcity.nl/amsterdam/wp-content/uploads/Staatskrant.pdf
    Thanks again for the read, Michiel Huijsman

  2. Thanks for your response. Funny how your article mentions the zombiestate too, and I get your point. However, I do believe that there is a lack of immersive depth most of the time. In the past I’ve found this article by Brown and Cairns to offer a very useful measuringstick for levels of immersion:
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.118.3278&rep=rep1&type=pdf
    They distinguish three levels: engagement, engrossment, and total immersion. Back then I was researching the EyeToy, and came to the conclusion that gametechnologies like the eyetoy and the Wii can never offer total immersion, because we can never completely give ourselves over to the diegetics of the gameworld.

  3. Nice piece. We at Layar believe that AR is an emerging mass medium. We see lots of artists, historians and other making local stories using Layars platform. From SNDRV’s art projects (www.sndrv.nl) to a pre-earth quake video on location in San Fransisco (http://site.layar.com/company/blog/stroll-down-san-franciscos-market-street-like-its-1899/) or a Beatles tour in London (http://www.engadget.com/2009/12/03/layar-3-0-reunites-the-beatles-in-3d-augmented-reality/).

    The growth is not hyper growth but it is there.What ever you call it, AR, Geotools, POI’s, whatever, its happening. Steadily.

    Any way, havent seen any articles yet on location as a medium such as this one. Great! Would love to do a coffee at one point and exchange ideas and theories. Drop me an email if you are interested.

Tijmen Schep

Tijmen Schep (1981) is a Dutch theorist on new media and digital culture, focussing on wireless media and public space. This theorizing is brought to life in the NetNiet.org foundation which promotes wireless media art by organising wireless festivals and events.

Boss at www.pineapplejazz.com
Founding member of www.netniet.org
Artistic director of www.setup.nl