In a conversation with Anth Melton a couple of months ago about augmented reality, Anth said something that turned my view of the technology on its head. It’s stuck with me, got to be shared and he won’t be bothered, so here goes.
We tend to come at augmented reality from the point of view of the benefits ‘within’ it, ie. what it does for you once you’ve got your Google Goggles or iSpecs on and you’re wandering around a world you’ve programmed, seeing a range of content and adverts picked out and filtered for you. But Anth suggested we should regard the development of AR from the other direction, from a town planning / eco-improvement perspective. Perhaps it offers an incredibly powerful tool (or at least impetus) to sort out the real physical world. I honestly haven’t heard this perspective on AR anywhere else and it amazes me, the more I think about it, it’s almost Mayer Hillman counter-intuitive.
You know the way that sometimes urban spaces look suddenly, unexpectedly beautiful if you look up above the ground floor? The truism that if you’re walking around a shoddy town centre, overcrowded with consumers, full of advert hoardings and with every building covered in shop signage, that the buildings themselves are actually gorgeous? You just have to look slightly upwards – to the first floor and above – to get smacked in the face by how lush these streets of varied historic architecture are, especially at a quieter time of day. For me Oxford Street and in particular Charing Cross Road are like that early morning, when there aren’t the usual bucketloads of numpties. Brighton is like that too because we have ramshackle, alleyway architecture which fades into the background when the town is rammed brimful of tourists and shoppers.
So what we do is migrate all extraneous commercial and social signage onto augmented reality, provide everyone with the means to view it when needed, then enjoy an improved real world that we can drop in and out of as suits. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months, imagining the extent to which the exodus online of commercial industries could go hand-in-hand with renewal of (both urban and rural) spaces. Someone needs to get the ball rolling with a trial space.
Pick an area, such as a small progressively-minded town. Then digitise as much commercial traffic and transaction as possible, not simply to improve its efficiency or make the same advances everywhere else is trying to make, but with a conscious aim of ‘cleaning up’ the physical world. Trial this small town free of any advert hoardings or roadsigns, which are all in a town-planned augmented reality space. It becomes illegal to drive a car without your council-supplied AR iSpecs on.
Go nuts. Hoodied yoof gets hold of special AR spraypaint apps to graff up the ARscape. Gig promoters and theatre managers flypost and billboard their shows in the same ARscape as newspaper sellers posting up their headlines. The only dogs you’re allowed to walk around town exist in AR, so the shit is deletable. Political campaigns and letterbox junkmail are in that space too. Parents can limit what their kids’ glasses pick out, so that they’re not exposed to the more adult-oriented promotional material, while similarly filtering the childrens’ adventure games out of their own AR.
Meanwhile we can switch civilisation off and opt out, temporarily or permanently as we feel, choosing to breathe in an uncivilised alternative.
Just for a start, out a little challenge to all the hi-tech digital conventions (that may be inevitable anyway): run your events with no physical invasion of the space you’ve descended upon, other than the people themselves. Imagine South By Southwest 2012, not a single leaflest, nor goodie bag, nor poster. Just hundreds of geeks in shades, knowing slightly more (and deliciously slightly less) than the rest of us.
Anyway, I liked it. Only downer is, it reminds me of the paperless office that never happened. But never mind, it has staved off post-tour blues for half a day.