The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Augmented Situations and the iPad 2

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

Augmented reality is the stuff of science fiction: it’s the screenvision of the Terminator, coolly processing inputted data and marking threats and targets with mechanical precision. It’s the world of Buy n Large in Wall E, where people are so immersed in their screen-based living that they fail to notice a swimming pool right in front of them. It’s a threat and a dream of a world made continually more interesting or engaging by interfacing with screens. And right now, it’s a buzzword looking to travel from the fantasies of popular culture into the mainstream. The iPad 2 is coming, and with it some expected rumbling about incremental upgrades: is there anything worth another several hundred dollars to lure people from the first iPad to this sleeker follow-up?

The surface distinctions are impressive, but not exactly world-changing. The iPad 2 is still waiting to be proven, and the change that might do the most to win new converts is waiting to be unlocked in the power of the embedded video camera–the gateway to recasting the iPad as an augmented reality device.

In Charles Stross’s Halting State, augmented reality is an accepted part of the social order. Stross’s near-future science fiction novel imagines a world where layers of data are transposed onto reality, so that police officers can “see” the shady history of a building or players in virtual games can engage in combat on the streets. The idea of holding up an iPad in front of your face and relying upon it for processing the world around you is not yet quite as compelling as these interfaces of the future, but it—and other smartphones and gaming devices—are offering a glimpse of this future layering of the datasphere and the physical world.

The idea of this connection has been explored throughout sci-fi, like in this imagining from Serial Experiments Lain.

The scene starts five minutes in, although the entire clip (and the entire show!) are worth watching. The augmented reality game in Lain was a reality-linked virtual world—imagine Halo but played virtually, on the streets of the city, as an ongoing conflict. This is the seamless future current devices are peeking in on. In Lain’s vision, a hack of the game that combined a first-person shooter with an ongoing kid’s game of tag led to deaths of players. Augmented reality hasn’t reached that level of consequence yet, but it’s where we may be heading. The image above is from an iPhone game called AR Commando that turns your neighborhood into a target zone. It’s a crude portent of things to come.

Most augmented reality applications that exist are fundamentally antisocial. One cool app, Virtual Graffiti, suggests a future through the lens of virtual graffiti artists: it points towards a future where you can tune in your iPhone and see the Pyramids repainted through the eyes of all the past visitors. A great thing for travel? Well, many AR apps are already targeted at those exploring a new place and trying to navigate culture and languages. Of course, if you’re staring at your Lonely Planet guide augmented directions to the nearest authentic pub, you’ve probably forgotten to actually talk to a local.

The most compelling uses of social technologies by their very nature press in on reality. So many things are happening with social networks being used for real connections—like the international pizza orders for Wisconsin protesters and the passing of resources between strangers unified by their shared causes. A just-released app for the iPhone targets our discomfort by turning the real world into a space for playful interaction. This app, The Situationist, is unnerving in its intrusion and sets out to be: “Serendipity doesn’t happen by itself. Force its hand, and turn everyday life back into a joyous and unpredictable free-for-all. How? Register and pick situations from our list, like “ask for my autograph”. Any nearby participant will then be sent your photo and location, with one of your chosen situations. They must then find you, carry it out, and walk away.”

The sample situations vary, and are also subject to moderated crowdsourcing. (The first “demo” example, for a five second hug, sounds potentially actionable.) Of course, the philosophy holds a response to that: “Merely by having it on your phone, your urban environment is transfigured: everyone you see is a potential encounter. In a time when strangers are depicted as potential sex offenders and stalkers rather than fellow human beings to join forces with, may it help to fight back!”

Experimental social connections are nothing new: Chatroulette has attracted users based on the exhibitionist exchanges that the net makes possible. But the crossing into the physical realm adds a layer of anticipation and fear: this game could have real world consequences. It’s a simple form of augmented reality, perhaps not even worthy of the term, but it has the potential to change the feel of a crowded city street. The aim of the app, in theory, is to inspire the kind of collective action that has resulted in flash mobs and other choreographed acts of randomness:

The augmented reality potential of the new iPad (which, let’s face it, is covetable even if it isn’t so much a leap as a tentative step forward) is for greater device interaction with the real-world video feed. An iPhone based marketing experiment by A&E offers a glimpse of what this can look like, challenging players to track down planted convicts in chases around metropolitan areas with the aid of their enhanced “game world” vision. It’s not much different from publicity stunts that have come before, but the technical integration within the app shows the potential for future projects.

The iPad’s Nintendo is banking on something similar with the 3DS, and, not to be outdone, the Sony NGP will have location based gaming. There are several AR games already planned for the 3DS: this tantalizing image from Nintendo’s site shows games “invading” your home office, a transformation that at the very least might give children everywhere a reason to clean some section of their room to make space for Mario.

The success or failure of these augmented reality experiments will not entirely determine the value of the iPad 2. The capability for video-conferencing already offers a chance for cementing existing social connections (and for the rest, there’s still always Chatroulette). But the growth of augmented reality will in part determine the interest of these devices and the way in which they transform our relationships with our environments. One of the greatest accusations made against immersive video games and other such media is that they turned us inward-bound: if World of Warcraft offers greater interest than your neighborhood without ever leaving your desk, why bother going out? Augmented reality that truly capitalizes on the social dynamics of real urban spaces could be a reason to rediscover the outdoors–or it could give us an easy fix for further retreating from the world around us even in the most packed of social situations.