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The World as Image, with a Wikipedia Overlay?

TAT augmented reality

TAT augmented reality

Most of us think of the camera as a way to produce a picture, whether on a screen, film or paper.

But in fact the camera is increasingly the point, whether or not one ever produces a permanent picture. Cellphones are rapidly embracing “augmented reality” (the iPhone will be introducing it in September, and others already have some capabilities), the ability to layer various kinds of data onto the image that one sees on a cellphone screen. Previously it was done via virtual reality helmets, but now, given GPS systems, internal compasses, sophisticated processors and links to the Internet, the cellphone camera will be, and already is, able to do the same.

So, for example, one could aim the camera at someone and layers of information (business card, Facebook status, job, marital status, whatever) could appear floating around the person’s image (click here or on image above). Either the subject would have pre-arranged his or her own “augmented reality” status for others to pick up, or face recognition systems might potentially identify the person and provide information about him or her available from the Web. The same can and will be done with landscapes and cityscapes, as databases are programmed to give supplementary information on wherever one happens to be.

Interesting possibilities might be the creation of virtual art to be layered onto various venues, visible only in augmented reality (see Spellbinder, for example). Imagine if certain music is triggered to go with the scenery? Or, as I suggest in After Photography, one might see historical images of what a place or building (or even a person) looked like a decade or many decades earlier. This would help a tourist (or even a local) get a sense of what a neighborhood used to be like, a potential employer know you for better or worse, etc. There is one app in development which will allow you to view the world near you through your iPhone and get an overlay of tweets from those nearby. The potentials for artists and geographers are extraordinary.

It could also lead to the worst kind of surveillance, potentially allowing police to get someone’s arrest record when passing him or her in the street. Or allowing anyone to pry into everyone else’s business all the time (or at least their Facebook page).

Much of this technology is still being developed, and face recognition in particular will always be problematic and probably never fully successful, but in certain ways some applications are not hard to imagine. What if a new employee is hooked up with a limited database to recognize co-workers so that their name and position appears on her cellphone screen? Or the new kid in school can recognize other students that way?

Certainly there would be some embarrassment and disconnection if one is always looking at a cellphone to figure out who the other person is (a reason to have a pair of hooked-in cyborg eyeglasses for such occasions to make it less obvious where one is looking). And it would be a crazy hobby to sit on a subway or bus trying to tap into everyone else’s Internet data via their faces. While there is something potentially helpful here, even invigorating, it can and will be also horribly limiting.

Photography has been about the image and all its imagined connections in time and space. With this technology the evanescent image is only a way to get somewhere else. It’s not even “point and shoot,” just “point.”

Where will intuition and all those more sensual, instinctive ways of knowing go? Will the world begin to resemble an image with a Wikipedia overlay? And what happens to privacy?


  1. wow, this is really imcredible, exciting, and scary. i had no idea the technology had become this widespread, let alone readily available.

    thanks for the info

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  2. Alex wrote:

    Your comment on the difficulties built into face-recognition as opposed to, say, landscape-recognition reminds me of the dichotomy you see between an iphone app like ibird, which is essentially a finite multimedia ornithological encyclopedia that you simply look “at”, and an app like one of the several astronomical apps that you look “through.” Devised to make use of the camera together with the new built-in compass thing, the latter track the movement of your camera and overlay the image it produces on your phone with astronomical maps and data. That said, both of these apps are clumsy, more symbolic of a certain idea about knowledge and its technological production and dissemination than they are particularly functional tools for achieving anything even close to the totalizing technics they promise. We’ll see how quickly (or if) that perception of clumsiness can be addressed–I say “if” because perhaps this perception is symptomatic of a more general way of framing and imagining technological change, where spirit always precedes, outruns and escapes an inevitably late and imperfect materialization into form. And keeps us chasing.

    Thank you for posting this; I particularly appreciate the questions you raise in the final paragraph.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. 1416教室 » JPEG革命 on Monday, August 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    [...] 这个叫做“augmented reality”(扩增实境)的新玩意儿,现在看来玄虚,但是已经开始入侵我们的生活。用通俗语言描述这个科技手段,按照Fred Ritchin的话就是给每一张照片上都加一个维基百科。 [...]

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