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Guest Column: James Alliban On Augmenting The Future Of Art

Augmented reality has a reputation for being a gimmick. It could be argued that in its current form, it’s relatively useless in the sense that there aren’t any must-have applications that the masses use daily to solve problems. This is all about to change in the coming years with smartphone connected AR glasses. Hands-free AR has the potential to profoundly alter the way we explore and interact with digital media and our physical surroundings. Because of this, I believe the technology is an important platform for art.

There are many aspects of AR currently being investigated by new media artists. Arguably the most important of these, is how the technology will change the way we see the world around us. Julian Oliver‘s open source platform The Artvertiser is an interesting example of this. Julian used a custom built pair of binoculars to subvert the billboard advertisements encountered in Berlin. By superimposing his own truth over these obtrusive adverts, Julian built what he calls “Improved Reality.” Steve Mann, a pioneer in wearable tech, was investigating similar ideas 10 years ago with his platform Wearcam. Steve was able to selectively occlude surfaces around a city and overlay messages from his wife, who was watching the live stream from his glasses. Steve called this Diminished Reality. Keiichi Matsuda’s short film Augmented City (below) is a thought-provoking vision of the future that takes this a step further. The protagonists are able to completely customize their surroundings by interacting with floating interfaces.

The notion of re-appropriated space often crops up when discussing AR. This is often addressed in AR art, particularly in the work of Sander Veenhof. Sander has built several channels for the LayAR mobile app in which he places virtual art in unexpected and sometimes controversial locations. Last year he unofficially exhibited virtual work in the MoMA NY and added a 7th floor. This year he ‘infiltrated’ the White House and Pentagon using AR. Such work questions the ownership and legal issues surrounding virtual space. The Space Liberation Front have written a manifesto on this subject which is worth reading. Alternatively, you can watch them hijack Bruce Sterling’s keynote at ARE2011 below.

AR can also enhance our experience of existing traditional media. Martin Kovacovsky and Marius Hügli have experimented with this idea in their piece Jekyll and Hyde. They have used a relatively lo-fi approach here to great effect in their attempt to enhance the haunting nature of the story. Another example of this is Amir Baradaran‘s Frenchising Mona Lisa. Amir’s mobile app overlays a short film onto the Mona Lisa in which the subject dons a French flag as a headscarf. According to the artist, the piece “seeks to provoke notions of national identity, iconography and curatorial practices within museums”.

The idea of building unique immersive storyworlds in a mixed reality environment is something that particularly appeals to me. Chris O’Shea‘s Little Magic Stories (below) is one of the best examples of this. Children are given the opportunity to create and perform in their own interactive stories. These performances take place in a “Pepper’s Ghost” inspired environment using a holographic display and Kinect camera. Helen Papagiannis was inspired by George Melies for her “augmented story” installation The Amazing Cinemagician. RFID chips are embedded in a series of cards, which control old film clips. The movies are projected onto a fog screen producing an ethereal floating canvas.

This immersive quality makes AR an effective platform for creative expression. Memo Akten‘s Webcam Piano 2.0 is an excellent example of this. A range of techniques including optical flow are combined in the audiovisual installation to allow the user to play improv piano using motion. A variety of visual effects are overlaid onto the camera footage to compliment the soundscape. My latest project, the iPhone app Konstruct (below) also fits into this category. It is an investigation into generative art in AR space. User’s can build virtual sculptures from a range of geometry and color palettes using sound.

The potential for augmented reality to radically alter the way we not only access information but see the world makes it an ideal technology to explore as an artist. New media artists often guide the direction of technology by exploring the boundaries and investigating the social implications. The language of AR will not just come from the tech houses, but from the artists, designers, film makers, and creative visionaries. I’m excited about the future of AR and the possibility of having a small impact on its direction.

James Alliban is a designer and media artist who builds interactive experiences using augmented reality as a platform. He also lectures on the topic of AR and has developed two iPhone apps that explore interactivity and abstraction, Fracture and Konstruct.

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