In many ways, augmented reality still feels like it’s in its infancy. But some artists are gradually exploring its possibilities.
Over the past decade, extended reality (XR) has grown from a specialized niche to a thriving scene with many more users and creators. But much of the critical and popular attention for these projects has focused on virtual reality, while augmented reality (AR) is relatively ignored. Let’s take a closer look.
The difference between the two forms is that virtual reality (VR) involves complete immersion in a created environment, while augmented reality superimposes virtual elements on the real world. Professors Elizabeth Miller and Patricia R. Zimmermann describe the distinction as “location-independent” VR, versus AR (or “augmented documentary”, as they call it) being “location-centric”. In many ways, the latter still seems to be in its infancy, and this gap is especially pronounced in the realm of documentary.
In AR fiction, there are at least a few hits like Pokemon GOwhile there is no comparable successful project for AR documentary.
By examining the existing AR documents, a certain lack of imagination becomes evident. Almost all are variants of historical education projects, often produced by or in collaboration with museums and similar institutions – what Sue Ding calls “location-based media” or “participatory documentaries”. They follow a similar format: using the appropriate device (almost always a smartphone), a viewer can study a specific real-world location with options to engage in some sort of exhibit or text-based mini-experiment, video or sound.
For example, the Chicago 00 project provides access to Chicago History Museum records in various parts of the city. Emerging Shard uses Spark AR and Instagram filters to overlay additional elements onto portraits of Japanese-American farmers who lived and worked in Bellevue, Washington, before World War II. The Japanese American National Museum app Be Here / 1942 allows visitors to “witness” the forced expulsion of Japanese Americans interned after Pearl Harbor; Looking through their phone camera, one can watch re-enactments of the event superimposed on the museum’s outdoor space. The Freedom Fighter app features an animated rendering of civil rights leader Dr. Lillie May Carroll Jackson speaking about her life and activism in locations around Baltimore. More of these experiences exist for everything from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage sites in Spain to Japantown in San Jose.
Befitting their educational origins, these projects are much like extensions of the traditional information signs that accompany museum exhibits and artifacts. Rather than significantly transform the understanding of a site, they tend to simply add more information to absorb. Often they require more passive activity than XR usually involves – holding your phone to watch or read, or having it by your side to listen. Sometimes they seem to exist simply for convenience, an alternative to building physical facilities on a site.
Notably, many of these apps are designed as methods of historical correction, highlighting the experiences of groups whose histories have traditionally been ignored by mainstream educational programs and institutions. This usage seems associated with the idea that XR is an “empathy machine”. However, this concept requires a more immersive and evocative experience. The assumption that audiovisual materials beyond standard text have more perceived power and can appeal to an audience presumed less interested in these stories is weighty, and could easily cross the line of good taste. There are already Holocaust-based AR experiences that follow the line of historical misery.
Looking at the history of AR writing over the past 20 years, researchers repeatedly speak of the “promise” it holds, without always being able to cite many concrete examples of work that demonstrates this promise. This changes somewhat. Comparing two AR articles on Documentary.org from 2018 by Sue Ding and then from 2022 by Bedatri Choudhury, the newer one may at least point to more projects.
That’s not to say AR isn’t very promising. It’s perhaps more of a symptom that the form is still in its infancy and something that we will explore as we develop more extensive technology and ways to interact with the medium. Some AR documentary projects do more to directly engage users, rather than passively push them “through” their environment.
New York-based edtech company Movers and Shakers is dedicated to such projects, with their Kinfolk app allowing monuments of black, brown, indigenous and/or queer historical figures to be digitally placed in real spaces, combining education and documentary with activist. reclaiming public space. Miller and Zimmermann cite, among other projects, Tamiko Thiel’s 2018 piece “Unexpected Growth,” which evoked the threat of ocean pollution by animating a digital tumor on the Whitney Museum that would evolve and spread in response to weather and in the eyes of visitors. . Nancy Baker Mushroom Cloud NYC/RISE projects a nuclear explosion onto the New York skyline, a daunting and visceral evocation of the danger of climate change.
There is also exciting potential in the AR features of social media apps. As Chase DiBenedetto explains, businesswoman Kristen Cuneo used her husband’s TikTok account to share her experiences as a new mother. Her series of videos featured highly quantified information she gathered about feedings, diaper changes, and more, which her colleagues could interact with in real time by scanning embedded QR codes.
Gradually but surely, we see this format flourish, as creators grasp the possibilities offered by interactive elements. One of the keys seems to be recognizing that “place-centric” media can be explored beyond simply adding digital facets to a place that could just as well be physical. Projects by Kinfolk, Baker and Thiel are actively transforming public spaces. Cuneo’s social sharing invites users to participate at their own pace. Pokemon GO became hugely popular by allowing players to reimagine the mundane outdoors as a sci-fi hunting ground. One could imagine that the documentary form benefits in the same way from augmented reality.
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