Constructing A Methodology

Mobile AR is still highly prototypical, and has not received much previous academic attention thus far. A deep analysis of this technology and its implications requires a specially developed methodology, a methodology which acknowledges the pre-release status of the technology, and recognises that Mobile AR represents a fusion of a number of different media technologies. Given that there is no fixed point of entry for analysis, I look to academics writing on the subject of other radical and emergent technologies that (at the time of publishing) were yet to reach the mainstream.

At this early stage of the product cycle there is an interesting interplay between fields. This interplay is assessed in Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing by Kline et al. (2003), and it raises some arguments useful to the further analysis of Mobile AR as a cultural artefact. One of its lessons is that assessing new technologies is fraught with a long-standing academic and cultural issue: the problem of technological determinism. The theory is that new technologies drive social, political and cultural changes, and that the perceived linearity of technical progression is somehow representative of humanity’s own progression, parallel trajectories dependent on the other’s existence. The weaknesses arise when one assigns these same values to their own assessments, which isolate the subject technology from its wider context. Indeed, it is often forgotten that in order to achieve these innovations, social, economic, political and cultural forces have all worked in collusion. Digital Play (Kline et al., 2003), quotes Leiss (1990) in an especially provoking summarisation:

“Strictly speaking, there are no imperatives in technology. The chief mistake … is to isolate one aspect (technology) of a dense network of social interactions, to consider it in abstraction from all the rest, and then relate it back to that network as an allegedly independent actor.”

Leiss (1990: 2) in Kline et al. (2003:8)

Leiss’ point is that academic enquiry should seek to observe its subjects in the light of their true context. He highlights the importance of the “network” as the source of each technology, denying the idea that modern culture is ‘Under Technology’s Thumb’ (Leiss, 1990). A personal observation is that within the “network” also lie the forerunning technologies that gave rise to the newest developments, and the means to develop them further. This idea recalls McLuhan, who to the detriment of Leiss’ argument, was sometimes known as “the most famous media technological determinist” (Straubhaar & LaRose, 2005: 51) who, in reference to man’s “perpetually … modifying his technology” McLuhan (1964: 46) states that “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms”. He hereby suggests a hidden complexity to human-technologic interactions, a complexity I return to later in this work. For now though, these thinkers’ opposing perspectives make a further analysis rather difficult. I recognise McLuhan’s view that there are forces at work within the “network” that need to be addressed, but accept Leiss’ view that I should view the web of interactions as a whole, in order that technological determinism cannot skew my findings. I must reconcile these perspectives in my own approach. Seeking to refrain from any dangerously deterministic hyperbole, I continue the assessment of Mobile AR as an emergent and potentially “network” enhancing new medium, but from which determinist-proof methodology?

Digital Play, though referring mainly to the digital games industry, looks into the complex dynamics between developer, distributor, market and economy. Its critical evaluation of this medium adopts a methodology that suits my own AR enquiries:

“The story of the emergence of interactive play and of its uncertain crisis-filled transformation into one of the premier industries of digital globalized capital is both exciting and revelatory. Historical perspective is vital to critical understanding. We strongly agree with Williams that it is impossible to diagnose the cultural impact of a new medium until the specific institutional circumstances of its development are understood. Moreover, critical media analysis requires historical perspective in order to argue against the deterministic view that technology “is a self-acting force which creates new ways of life [Williams, 1992: 8]”.

Kline et al. (2003:79)

Now, since Mobile AR is such a new and radical technology, it is best considered in terms of other, previously radical technologies and their own timely impact. This approach recognises the emergent nature of Mobile AR technology and the lack of current research in the field, but also allows the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this technology in a relatively safe way: that is, through the lessons learned from full-fledged media. I propose that a useful lens through which to view Mobile AR is offered by an historical analysis of Mobile AR’s better established component media, with a view to producing an understanding of the implications AR holds for society. This approach allows AR to be considered as a product of a convergence of paths: technologic, academic, social and economic, providing the basis for deeper analysis as a consequence.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Introduction

Augmented Reality (AR) is a theme of computer research which deals with a combination of real world and computer generated data. AR is just one version of a Mixed Reality (MR) technology, where digital and real elements are mixed to create meaning. In essence AR is any live image that has an overlay of information that augments the meaning of these images.

Digital graphics are commonly put to work in the entertainment industry, and ‘mixing realities’ is a common motif for many of today’s media forms. There are varying degrees to which The Real and The Virtual can be combined. This is illustrated in my Mixed Reality Scale:

mixed-reality-scale
My Mixed Reality Scale, a simplified version of Milgram & Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum

This is a simplified version of Milgram and Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum; simplified, because their research is purely scientific, without an explicit interest in media theory or effects, therefore not wholly applicable to my analysis. At the far left of my Mixed Reality Scale lies The Real, or physical, every-day experiential reality. For the longest time we lived solely in this realm. Then, technological innovation gave rise to the cinema, and then television. These media are located one step removed from The Real, a step closer to The Virtual, and can be considered a window on another world. This world is visually similar to our own, a fact exploited by its author to narrate believable, somewhat immersive stories. If willing, the viewer is somewhat ‘removed’ from their grounding here in physical reality, allowing them to participate in the construction of a sculpted, yet static existence. The viewer can only observe this contained reality, and cannot interact with it, a function of the viewing apparatus.

Later advancements in screen media technologies allowed the superimposition of graphical information over moving images. These were the beginnings of AR, whereby most of what is seen is real with some digital elements supplementing the image. Indeed, this simple form of AR is still in wide use today, notably in cases where extra information is required to make sense of a subject. In the case of certain televised sports, for example, a clock and a scoreboard overlay a live football match, which provides additional information that is useful to the viewer. Television viewers are already accustomed to using information that is displayed in this way:

Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics
Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics

More recently, computing and graphical power gave designers the tools to build wholly virtual environments. The Virtual is a graphical representation of raw data, and the furthest removed from physical reality on my Mixed Reality Scale. Here lies the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), a technology that uses no real elements except for the user’s human senses. The user is submersed in a seemingly separate reality, where visual, acoustic and sometimes haptic feedback serve to transpose them into this artificial, yet highly immersive space. Notice the shift from viewer to user: this is a function of the interactivity offered by digital space. VR was the forerunner to current AR research, and remains an active realm of academic study.

Computer graphics also enhanced the possibilities offered by television and cinema, forging a new point on the Mixed Reality Scale. I refer to the Augmented Virtuality (AV) approach, which uses mainly digital graphics with some real elements superimposed. For example, a newsreader reporting from a virtual studio environment is one common application. I position AV one step closer towards The Virtual to reflect the ratio of real to virtual elements:

An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio
An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio

There is an expansive realm between AV and VR technologies, media which offer the user wholly virtual constructions that hold potential for immersion and interactivity. I refer to the media of video games and desktop computers. Here the user manipulates visually depicted information for a purpose. These media are diametrically opposed to their counterpart on my scale, the cinema and television, because they are windows this time into a virtual world, actively encouraging (rather than denying) user interactivity to perform their function. Though operating in virtuality, the user remains grounded in The Real due to apparatus constraints.

Now, further technological advancements allow the fusion of real and virtual elements in ways not previously possible. Having traversed our way from The Real to The Virtual, we have now begun to make our way back. We are making a return to Augmented Reality, taking with us the knowledge to manipulate wholly virtual 3D objects and the computing power to integrate digital information into live, real world imagery. AR is deservedly close to The Real on my scale, because it requires physicality to function. This exciting new medium has the potential to change the way we perceive our world, forging a closer integration between our two binary worlds. It is this potential as an exciting and entirely new medium that has driven me to carry out the following work.

To begin, I address the science behind AR and its current applications. Next, I exploit an industry connection to inform a discussion of AR’s development as an entertainment medium. Then, I construct a methodology for analysis from previous academic thought on emergent technologies, whilst addressing the problems of doing so. I use this methodology to locate AR in its wider technologic, academic, social and economic context. This discussion opens ground for a deeper analysis of AR’s potential socio-cultural impact, which makes use of theories of media and communication and spatial enquiry. I conclude with a final critique that holds implications for the further analysis of Mixed Reality technology.