News, , , , , , , , , , — September 26, 2011 12:45 — 0 Comments

Augmented reality and public spaces: what are the challenges and benefits?

Will mobile augmented reality become the new mass medium of communication and expression?

The age of Augmented reality (AR) is already upon us. As smartphone and tablet technology develops we’ll be seeing more of it on our mobile devices – and artists are already using this new slice of digital information to augment their real-world view.

As they do so public spaces are also becoming augmented with AR technology, for example the game Shadow Cities is hugely popular and invites players to take over their streets or neighbourhood. AR works by digitally re-appropriating the space to layer content on our mobile devices.

The number of apps incorporating AR is growing and with video recognition as a geospatial input they are already taking it to the next level.

This, of course, represents a historical change in how we perceive, view and interact with urban and public spaces, and it formed the basis of a talk at the 2011 Alpha-ville Festival in London that looked into a post-digital future.

The Democratisation of Public Spaces with Augmented Reality may have been a bit of a mouthful; but the talk’s message was simple. Who actually owns our so-called public spaces?

The talk also threw up other questions such as what are the challenges, benefits and usage of AR in a public space and what will the built environment be like in 30 years?

AR challenges this ownership of public space and buildings by using layers of virtual space. For example there is an app called ‘artvertising’ that allows artists to change their environments by manipulating signs and billboards, similar to the way graffiti artist Banksy does, but by using digital tools instead of a spray can.

One of the main pioneers in this area is Dutch company Layar Vision, who are also working with the Sydney-based digital artist Yiying Lu on her project Walls 360 | Art for everywhere project.

But Ronald Carpentier, vice president of marketing and operations at Layar, said it is important for AR to include a story. “We value things with a story more than things without a story,” he told the audience.

There is also the question, posed by Olivia Solon, associate editor of and the talk’s moderator. She said AR is definitely forming the future — but is it too gimmicky at the moment?

Ben Stevenson, founder of Augmented Reality Cinema previewed an AR cinema app that shows scenes from movies filmed at the actual locations you happen to be near.

The Alpha-ville Festival talk on augmented reality previewed the Augmented Reality Cinema app. Photograph: @KatrionaBeales

There was concern, however, that the physical public space might become neglected as we all spend more time staring into tiny screens on AR apps …

Keiichi Matusda is a qualified architect, as well as a designer and film-maker, and understands the argument more than most. His take on AR is: “Instead of the environment speaking to you directly, the environment speaks to the device which speaks to you.”

The question of democratising AR is critical. The internet is not democratic intrinsically – it is colonised by ‘geo-political power plays’ was another point raised in the talk.

It’s a point that we all need to become aware of because AR could be used as a powerful tool to manipulate messages, which some authorities are not going to take to kindly too.

Away from the conference, Brian D Wassom is a litigation attorney in the United States and founder of, a forum for discussion and commentary on the law of social media and other new and emerging forms of expression.

He has followed the development of AR and is concerned about the legal principles that will govern the use of AR technology.

In his blog, he writes: “The AR industry promises to change the way we view our world and interact with data–changes so subtle yet profound that the technology will alter our behavior every bit as much as the internet and cell phones have.

“As AR technologies get more sophisticated, diverse, and widely adopted, we have to expect that they’ll bring equally radical and innovative applications of legal principles. Only through the process of litigation, legislation, and negotiation will we as a society form the rules that govern the technology’s use.”

For now though artists and developers are seizing on AR as a highly creative tool that has the power to change our environment through computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics.

It may well be a gimmick at present, but if the message is in the medium no one yet has control of it, which means we, the public, can see things exactly how we choose to – for now.

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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