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…

Deconstructing AR

The next four entries in my series on AR will assess it’s potential socio-cultural impact, which has now started to begin.

We have now reached a depth of analysis that has taken in the historical, economic and technologic paths leading to Mobile AR, but there are greater depths to plunge. From this vantage point, the question arises: how will the user experience this new medium? This section assesses the implications of Mobile AR from a critical and media theoretical perspective, and offers the other half of my close analysis.

There are very few published articles on the subject of AR, let alone Mobile AR, and fewer still that offer a media theory perspective on user-interactions in augmented environments. There are a clutch of articles that refer to such an area, but like my own analysis, these academics have resorted to applying old frameworks to a new medium, with McLuhan, Baudrillard and Benjamin seeming the most applicable theorists. My own thoughts on Mobile AR resonate with these thinkers yet no such analysis has involved all three epistemologies, so I must tread carefully…