Aurasma vs. Blippar

I’ve written about Augmented Reality extensively in the past, but since the days of immersing myself in the purely theoretical potential for the medium, a few key players have rooted themselves in a very commercial reality that is now powering the fledgling industry.

And while B2B-focused vendors such as ViewAR remain behind the scenes, the likes of Aurasma and Blippar have soared in notoriety thanks to some quite excellent packaging and an impressive sales proposition. They are the standard bearers, at least in the eyes of the public.

I like Aurasma. But I also like Blippar. So which is better? Well, let’s find out… Here are some provocations I’ve been toying around with. See if it helps you decide, and let me know which side you fall on in the comments.

[twocol_one][dropcap]A[/dropcap]urasma has more technological power behind it. They have (supposedly) incorporated academic research into their proprietary tech and have a heritage in pattern recognition systems – remember their core business though: integrating with business critical processes and then slowly ramping up prices. They do this across all other Autonomy products! Also consider they are an HP property, whose business is hardware, not software. I believe Aurasma are only using this period of their lifespan to learn what does and doesn’t work, get better at it, gain status, equip users to enjoy AR, and then develop a mobile chipset (literally, hardware optimised for AR) that can be embedded in mobile devices, making HP buckets of royalties. They are chasing install base, but not because they want advertising bucks: they want to whitelabel their tech (i.e. Tesco, Heat & GQ) and then disappear into the background.[/twocol_one]

[twocol_one_last][dropcap]B[/dropcap]lippar have a proprietary AR engine, but are listed as using Qualcomm’s Vuforia engine – which is free to use. They seem focused on innovations in the augmented layer. Reading their interviews, they speak of AR not as a tech, platform or medium, but as a kind of magic campaign juice: stuff that reveals they are extremely focused on delivering a good consumer experience paid for by advertisers, with them as connective tissue. To this end, they too are chasing install base, but ultimately they have a different goal in mind. Being Qualcomm-backed, their future is in flexing their creative muscles and helping make AR a mass market medium through normalising behaviour. Big rivals: Aurasma in the short term, but I imagine that one day, Aurasma will revert back to being a tech platform, and companies like Blippar will provide the surface experience: where good content, not tech, will be what sells.[/twocol_one_last]

So what do you reckon – A or B?

Conclusion

I set out to assess the implications of a wholly new medium, one which had received little academic attention written from a media theoretical perspective. I made clear use of an industry connection to gain inside knowledge of the developments occurring to bring this medium to the mainstream. Building a methodology that could sustain the level of analysis that I hoped to achieve, I observed the interactions between technology and industry, market forces and cultural influences. Having positioned my subject at the crest of a curling wave, I employed critical media theory to explore the potential implications of my subject in its wider context of social reality. This ambitious task has granted me insight into how the complex interactions of various fields give rise to social change. Along the way I have revealed seams rich in potential for further analysis.

McLuhan is proven to apply to yet another medium, the perspective he offers served my analysis quite well. A further exploration might make use of his Acoustic and Visual Space probe, Cavell’s basis for McLuhanistic spatial enquiry in his book McLuhan in Space (2002) would be a good starting point for such work, since it applies McLuhanism to the media of time and space, thus a good start for work on the presence of virtual objects. Media analysts occupied with screen design might wish to extend Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) work on remediation to the emergent Mobile AR technology, perhaps from an explicit digital gaming perspective. Those with interest in advertising or business as applied to Augmented Reality would do well to continue Benjaminian thought to its logical end: manipulating a virtual object to hold added-value for commercial enterprise. Those with a more creative bent might enjoy a study of the public perception of AR artworks using Benjamin also. There is scope for research into AR-based social interactions; gaming styles; immersion and identity formation, but this sort of work necessitates that first Mobile AR spends at least some time in public consciousness.

Finally, I believe that I have convincingly laid out an argument showing that AR is currently being developed and packaged as an entertainment technology, but its potential for community-driven, self-proliferating excitement of user-created content makes AR a significant and culturally-transformative technology. Convergence between media types will enable and drive the creation of innovative content which if successful will itself rely on new ways of accessing and viewing content and ultimately new forms of content and user experience entirely. We are at the crest of a wave. Will it wither and let a larger wave pass above it, or will it grow to reach tidal proportions? Despite my predictions, only time will tell.

Applying Baudrillard

For Jean Baudrillard (1983), “at any moment in the course of our modernity, a particular arrangement of signifying objects and images conditions the way we see the world” (Clark, 1995). “Each major transformation is accompanied by a feeling of disorientation and discomfort over the loss of the previous ‘reality’. This effects a recourse into the imagined certainties of the receding order to ground or stabilise that which is new. In this way, “reality loops around itself”, as “each phase of value integrates into its own apparatus the anterior apparatus as a phantom reference, a puppet or simulation reference”” (Baudrillard, 1988: 145, 121; cited in Clark, 1995). In these words, we see Baudrillard’s perspective can apply neatly to my analysis of Mobile AR. Taking up where McLuhan left us- a view of the Magic Lens constrained by its deterministic overtones- Baudrillard injects the much-needed element of an actively social construction of Mixed Reality, whilst grounding my work in his Postmodern thought on Virtuality.

I am interested in the view that iterations of reality, whilst overlapping and viewable through the Magic Lens, support and influence each other’s existence within a wider structure. I could live wholly in The Virtual, and bring to it conceptions of the reality from whence I came. We see a similar behaviour in Alternate Reality games such as Second Life (Linden Lab: 2003) or The Sims (Maxis: 2000) whereby developers program known physical world causalities, behaviours and actions despite the near-limitless formal opportunities offered by the medium. Users, when given freedom, will likely bring their own conceits and personal experiences to these alternate realities, thereby foregoing what else might be possible in favour of their own culturally-inherited drives and ambitions. The Magic Lens presents a wholly new canvas for the social construction of reality. The collaborative and democratic Mobile 2.0 ethos that Nokia hope to breathe into Mobile AR could falter if users bring too much of our present iteration of reality to it. The Magic Lens offers an opportunity to reshape The Real, not solely through tagging buildings or leaving messages floating in mid-aid, but through the lessons we might learn through engaging with each other in a new way.

Baudrillard focused his work on how we interface with information, and how we build it into our view of reality. He posited that The Media had hijacked reality, becoming a powerful force in the construction of hyper-reality, a social reality that has become more powerful than we exert control over. Through the Magic Lens, we might give form to some aspects of hyper-reality. The medium allows for virtual elements to co-exist with real objects occupying space in the user’s own hyper-reality. In this way, each user can choose which hyper-reality they want to exist in, whether it is one in which 3D AR avatars walk the streets and go about their virtual lives; or one where arrows and directions graphically point out where to go to fulfil a shopping list’s requirements. The Magic Lens makes a shift from mass-media control to personalised, user-focused context-based reality: Reality 2.0 if you will.

Assuming AR does present a new layer to reality, there are certain Baudrillardian imperatives that we will bring to this landscape. One such imperative links the physical properties of real-world space- gravity, mass, optics- to our new environment. To make sense of virtual elements in their context we will employ what we already know about the environment we are in. This means that the most prized virtual objects will exhibit expected behaviour, intuitive interactivity and will be visually suited to its surroundings. Similarly, an object’s location in space alters its perceived importance. I would argue that should a common Mixed Reality exist, governing bodies would write entire protocol for the positioning and size of virtual objects so that one contributor could not take up more than his worth. Important to consider is that even writing hypothetically I am bringing Baudrillardian imperatives to task, applying democracy to a non-existent world! Baudrillard’s “reality loops around itself” has a troublesome effect on my analysis. Let me instead take a fresh perspective, in my next section written from the perspective of Walter Benjamin…

Applying McLuhan

I begin with McLuhan, whose Laws of Media or Tetrad offers greater insights for Mobile AR, sustaining and developing upon the arguments developed in my assessment of the interlinking technologies that meet in Mobile AR, whilst also providing the basis to address some of this man’s deeper thoughts.

The tetrad can be considered an observation lens to turn upon one’s subject technology. It assumes four processes take place during each iteration of a given medium. These processes are revealed as answers to these following questions, taken from Levinson (1999):

“What aspect of society or human life does it enhance or amplify? What aspect, in favour or high prominence before the arrival of the medium in question, does it eclipse or obsolesce? What does the medium retrieve or pull back into centre stage from the shadows of obsolescence? And what does the medium reverse or flip into when it has run its course or been developed to its fullest potential?”

(Digital Mcluhan 1999: 189).

To ask each of these it is useful to transfigure our concept of Mobile AR into a more workable and fluid term: the Magic Lens, a common expression in mixed reality research. Making this change allows the exploration of the more theoretical aspects of the technology free of its machinic nature, whilst integrating a necessary element of metaphor that will serve to illustrate my points.

To begin, what does the Magic Lens amplify? AR requires the recognition of a pre-programmed real-world image in order to augment the environment correctly. It is the user who locates this target, it is important to mention. It could be said that the Magic Lens more magnifies than amplifies an aspect of the user’s environment, because like other optical tools the user must point the device towards it and look through, the difference with this Magic Lens is that one aspect of its target, one potential meaning, is privileged over all others. An arbitrary black and white marker holds the potential to mean many things to many people, but viewed through an amplifying Magic Lens it means only what the program recognises and consequently superimposes.

This superimposition necessarily obscures what lies beneath. McLuhan might recognise this as an example of obsolescence. The Magic Lens privileges virtual over real imagery, and the act of augmentation leaves physical space somewhat redundant: augmenting one’s space makes it more virtual than real. The AR target undergoes amplification, becoming the necessary foundation of the augmented reality. What is obsolesced by the Magic Lens, then, is not the target which it obscures, but everything except the target.

I am reminded of McLuhan’s Extensions of Man (1962: 13), which offers the view that in extending ourselves through our tools, we auto-amputate the aspect we seek to extend. There is a striking parallel to be drawn with amplification and obsolescence, which becomes clear when we consider that in amplifying an aspect of physical reality through a tool, we are extending sight, sound and voice through the Magic Lens to communicate in wholly new ways using The Virtual as a conduit. This act obsolesces physical reality, the nullification effectively auto-amputating the user from their footing in The Real. So where have they ‘travelled’? The Magic Lens is a window into another reality, a mixed reality where real and virtual share space. In this age of Mixed Realities, the tetrad can reveal more than previously intended: new dimensions of human interaction.

The third question in the tetrad asks what the Magic Lens retrieves that was once lost. So much new ground is gained by this technology that it would be difficult to make a claim. However, I would not hold belief in Mobile AR’s success if I didn’t recognise the exhumed, as well as the novel benefits that it offers. The Magic Lens retrieves the everyday tactility and physicality of information engagement, that which was obsolesced by other screen media such as television, the Desktop PC and the games console. The Magic Lens encourages users to interact in physicality, not virtuality. The act of actually walking somewhere to find something out, or going to see someone to play with them is retrieved. Moreover, we retrieve the sense of control over our media input that was lost by these same technologies. Information is freed into the physical world, transfiguring its meaning and offering a greater degree of manipulative power. Mixed Reality can be seen only through the one-way-glass of the Magic Lens, The Virtual cannot spill through unless we allow it to. We have seen that certain mainstream media can wholly fold themselves into reality and become an annoyance- think Internet pop-ups and mobile ringtones- through the Magic Lens we retrieve personal agency to navigate our own experience. I earlier noted that “the closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives”; a position that resonates with my growing argument that engaging with digital information through the Magic Lens is an appropriate way to integrate and indeed exploit The Virtual as a platform for the provision of communication, leisure and information applications.

It is hard to approximate what the Magic Lens might flip into, since at this point AR is a wave that has not yet crested. I might suggest that since the medium is constrained to success in its mobile device form, its trajectory is likely entwined with that medium. So, the Magic Lens flips into whatever the mobile multimedia computer flips into. Another possibility is that the Magic Lens inspires such commercial success and industrial investment that a surge in demand for Wearable Computers shifts AR into a new form. This time, the user cannot dip in and out of Mixed Reality as they see fit, they are immersed in it whenever they wear their visor. This has connotations all of its own, but I will not expound my own views given that much cultural change must first occur to implement such a drastic shift in consumer fashions and demands. A third way for the Magic Lens to ‘flip’ might be its wider application in other media. Developments in digital ink technologies; printable folding screens; ‘cloud’ computing; interactive projector displays; multi-input touch screen devices; automotive glassware and electronic product packaging could all take advantage of the AR treatment. We could end up living far more closely with The Virtual than previously possible.

In their work The Global Village, McLuhan and Powers (1989) state that:

“The tetrad performs the function of myth in that it compresses past, present, and future into one through the power of simultaneity. The tetrad illuminates the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of the spiralling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis”

(The Global Village 1989: 9)

I would be interested to hear their view on the unique “simultaneity” offered by the Magic Lens, or indeed the “metamorphosis” it would inspire, but I would argue that when applied from a Mixed Reality inter-media perspective, their outlook seems constrained to the stringent and self-involved rules of their own epistemology. Though he would be loath to admit it, Baudrillard took on McLuhan’s work as the basis of his own (Genosko, 1999; Kellner, date unknown), and made it relevant to the postmodern era. His work is cited by many academics seeking to forge a relationship to Virtual Reality in their research…

Summary So Far

In summary, Mobile AR has many paths leading to it. It is this convergence of various paths that makes a true historical appraisal of this technology difficult to achieve. However, I have highlighted facets of its contributing technologies that assist in the developing picture of the implications that Mobile AR has in store. A hybridisation of a number of different technologies, Mobile AR embodies the most gainful properties of its three core technologies: This analyst sees Mobile AR as a logical progression from VR, but recognises its ideological rather than technological founding. The hardware basis of Mobile AR stems from current mobile telephony trends that exploit the growing capabilities of Smartphone devices. The VR philosophy and the mobile technology are fused through the Internet, the means for enabling context-based, live-updating content, and housing databases of developer-built and user-generated digital objects and elements, whilst connecting users across the world.

I have shown that where the interest in VR technologies dwindled due to its limited real-world applicability, Mobile Internet also lacks in comparison to Mobile AR and its massive scope for intuitive, immersive and realistic interpretations of digital information. Wearable AR computing shares VR’s weaknesses, despite keeping the user firmly grounded in physical reality. Mobile AR offers a solution that places the power of these complex systems into a mobile telephone: the ubiquitous technology of our generation. This new platform solves several problems at once, most importantly for AR developers and interested Blue-chip parties, market readiness. Developing for Mobile AR is simply the commercially sensible thing to do, since the related industries are already making the changes required for its mass-distribution.

Like most nascent technologies, AR’s success depends on its commercial viability and financial investment, thus most sensible commercial developers of AR technologies are working on projects for the entertainment and advertising industries, where their efforts can be rewarded quickly. These small-scale projects are often simple in concept, easily grasped and thus not easily forgotten. I claim here that the first Mobile AR releases will generate early interest in the technology and entertainment markets, with the effect that press reportage and word-of-mouth behaviour assist Mobile AR’s uptake. I must be careful with my claims here however, since there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this will occur for Mobile AR. Looking at the emergence of previous technologies, however, the Internet and mobile telephony grew rapidly and to massive commercial success thanks to some strong business models and advancements in their own supporting technologies. It is strongly hoped by developers like Gameware and T-Immersion that Mobile AR can enjoy this same rapid lift-off. Both technologies gained prominence once visible in the markets thanks to a market segment called early adopters. This important group gathers their information from specialist magazine sources and word of mouth. Mobile AR developers would do well to recognise the power of this group, perhaps by offering shareware versions of their AR software that encourage a form of viral transmission that exploit text messaging.

Gameware have an interesting technique for the dissemination of their HARVEE software. They share a business interest with a Bluetooth technology firm, which has donated a prototype product the Bluetooth Push Box, which scans for local mobile devices and automatically sends files to users in acceptance. Gameware’s Push Box sends their latest demo to all visitors to their Cambridge office. This same technology could be placed in public places or commercial spaces to offer localised AR advertising, interactive tourist information, or 3D restaurant menus, perhaps.

Gameware, through its Nokia projects and HARVEE development program is well placed to gain exposure on the back of a market which is set to explode as mobile offerings become commercially viable, ‘social’, powerful, multipurpose and newsworthy. Projects like HARVEE are especially interesting in terms of their wide applicability and mass-market appeal. It is its potential as a revolutionary new medium that inspires this very series.

Mobile Telephone

The Internet and the mobile phone are two mighty forces that have bent contemporary culture and remade it in their form. They offer immediacy, connectivity, and social interaction of a wholly different kind. These are technologies that have brought profound changes to the ways academia consider technoscience and digital communication. Their relationship was of interest to academics in the early 1990’s, who declared that their inevitable fusion would be the beginning of the age of Ubiquitous Computing: “the shift away from computing which centered on desktop machines towards smaller multiple devices distributed throughout the space” (Weiser, 1991 in Manovich, 2006). In truth, it was the microprocessor and Moore’s Law- “the number of transistors that can be fit onto a square inch of silicon doubles every 12 months” (Stokes, 2003) that led to many of the technologies that fall under this term: laptops, PDA’s, Digital Cameras, flash memory sticks and MP3 players. Only recently have we seen mobile telephony take on the true properties of the Internet.

The HARVEE project is partially backed by Nokia Corp. which recognises its potential as a Mobile 2.0 technology: user-generated content for mobile telephony that exploits web-connectivity. Mobile 2.0 is an emerging technology thematically aligned with the better established Web 2.0. Nokia already refer to their higher-end devices as multimedia computers, rather than as mobile phones. Their next generation Smartphones will make heavy use of camera-handling systems, which is predicated on the importance of user-generated content as a means to promote social interaction. This strategic move is likely to realign Nokia Corp.’s position in the mobile telephony and entertainment markets.

Last year, more camera phones were sold than digital cameras (Future Image, 2006). Nokia have a 12 megapixel camera phone ready for release in 2009, and it will be packaged with a processing unit equal to the power of a Sony PSP (Nokia Finland: non-public product specification document). MP3 and movie players are now a standard on many handsets, stored on plug-in memory cards and viewed through increasingly higher resolution colour screens. There is a growing mobile gaming market, the fastest growing sector of the Games Industry (Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) sales chart). The modern mobile phone receives its information from wide-band GPRS networks allowing greater network coverage and faster data transfer. Phone calls are the primary function, but users are exploiting the multi-media capabilities of their devices in ways not previously considered. It is these factors, technologic, economic and infrastructural that provide the perfect arena for Mobile AR’s entry into play.

Mobile Internet is the natural convergence of mobile telephony and the World Wide Web, and is already a common feature of new mobile devices. Mobile Internet, I would argue, is another path leading to Mobile AR, driven by mobile users demanding more from their handsets. Mobile 2.0 is the logical development of this technology- placing the power of location-based, user-generated content into a new real-world context. Google Maps Mobile is one such application that uses network triangulation and its own Google Maps technologies to offer information, directions, restaurant reviews or even satellite images of your current location- anywhere in the world. Mobile AR could achieve this same omniscience (omnipresence?) given the recent precedent for massively multi-user collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, Flickr and Google Maps itself. These are essentially commercially built infrastructures designed to be filled with everybody’s tags, comments or other content. Mobile AR could attract this same amount of devotion if it offered such an infrastructure and real-world appeal.

There is a growing emphasis on Ubiquitous Computing devices in our time-precious world, signified by the increased sales in Smartphones and WiFi enabled laptops. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mobile Internet use has increased as users’ devices become capable of greater connectivity. Indeed, the mobile connected device is becoming the ubiquitous medium of modernity, as yet more media converge in it. It is the mobile platform’s suitability to perform certain tasks that Mobile AR can take advantage of, locating itself in the niche currently occupied by Mobile Internet. Returning to my Mixed Reality Scale, Mobile AR serves the user better than Mobile Internet currently can: providing just enough reality to exploit virtuality, Mobile AR keeps the user necessarily grounded in their physical environment as they manipulate digital elements useful to their daily lives.

The Internet

The Internet, or specifically the World Wide Web, requires a limited virtuality in order to do its job. The shallow immersion offered to us by our computer screens actually serves our needs very well, since the Internet’s role in our lives is to connect, store and present information in accessible, searchable, scannable, and consistent form for millions of users to access simultaneously, to be dived in and out of quickly or to surround ourselves in the information we want. The naturally-immersive VR takes us partway towards Mobile AR, but its influence stops at the (admittedly profound) concept of real-time interaction with 3D digital images. What the Internet does is bring information to us, but VR forces us to go to it.

This is a function of the Mixed Reality Scale, and the distance of each from The Real. The closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives. The self-sufficient realm of The Virtual does not require grounding in physical reality in order to exist, whereas the Internet and other MR media depend on The Real to operate. AR is the furthest that a virtual object can be ‘stitched into’ our reality, and in doing so we exploit our power in this realm to manipulate and interact with these digital elements to suit our own ends, as we currently do with the World Wide Web.

The wide-ranging entertainment resources offered by the Internet are having a profound effect on real-world businesses, a state of flux that Mobile AR could potentially exploit. There is a shift in the needs of consumers of late that is forcing a change in the ways that many blue-chip organisations are handling their businesses: Mobile data carriers (operators), portals, publishers, content owners and broadcasters are all seeking new content types to face up to the threat of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) – which is reducing voice traffic; and Web TV/ Internet – reducing (reduced?) TV audiences, particularly in the youth market.

T-Mobile, for example, seeks to improve on revenues through offering unique licensed mobile games, themes, ringtones and video-clips on their T-Zones Mobile Internet Portal; NBC’s hit-series ‘Heroes’ is the most downloaded show on the Internet, forcing NBC to offer exclusive online comics on their webpage, seeking to recoup advertising revenue losses through lacing the pages of these comics with advertising. Mobile AR represents a fresh landscape for these businesses to mine. It is no surprise, then, that some forward-thinking AR developers are already writing software specifically for the display of virtual advertisement billboards in built-up city areas (T-Immersion).

The Internet has changed the way we receive information about the world around us. This hyper-medium has swallowed the world’s information and media content, whilst continuing to enable the development of new and exciting offerings exclusive to the desktop user. The computing capacity required to use the Internet has in the past constrained the medium to the desktop computer, but in the ‘Information Age’ the World Wide Web is just that: World Wide.