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…

What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.