This past Friday marked the inaugural Ontario Augmented Reality Network (OARN) conference here in Toronto. Headed by Brock University-based Canada Research Chair Kevin Kee, OARN is dedicated to building bridges between university research initiatives, developers and cultural agencies in an effort to share knowledge, pool resources and promote business development within our fledgling local AR sector. To this end, Canada’s “largest augmented reality conference” enlisted Bruce Sterling, Gene Becker and Helen Papagiannis to deliver feature presentations amongst a day-long program of panels and breakout sessions. CAN was on site and has prepared the following summary of the proceedings.
Speculative fiction author and blogosphere coolhunter extraordinaire Bruce Sterling was uniquely qualified to provide an expansive survey on the state of AR. On taking the podium, Sterling described how he’d been “waiting for this moment in the industry” since about 1993 and he began delineating ARs trajectory from the stuff of sci-fi through the recent arrival of venture capital investors. Sterling opened with a brief meditation on the aesthetic qualities of a digital model of himself (possibly captured with the RGBDToolkit) and, with a nod to the pioneering work of Ron Azuma, described what would become a central theme in his talk, the idea of the ‘registration’ of digital systems within the physical world. Looking back far further than the early 90s, Sterling presented a range of clunky 20th century head-mounted displays as evidence of the longstanding desire for VR/AR systems and described the field as delightfully ill-defined and perpetually experiencing growing pains. He was quick to disavow any predictive expertise regarding AR as “science fiction forecasts are always wrong” and illustrated this point by describing the absurdity of “comparing Jules Verne’s description of a submarine to a modern nuclear submarine”. Pouncing on the most recent edition of the Gartner Hype Cycle, Sterling warned that the going was about to get tough and that developers and researchers should expect to reach peak backlash and skepticism regarding the medium soon as AR is—in terms of public perception—headed for the ‘trough of disillusionment’. This “slope to hell” was to be endured as, like all speculative technologies, AR was destined to be deployed in a range of consumer services and become an everyday tool (e.g. see Layar’s recent shift to focusing on interactive print). Sterling predicted that AR would likely be ‘absorbed’ into the mobile industry pointing to Google Glass (“merely an Android device”) and predicted widespread deployment in desktop contexts as well (“see Intel’s recent forays into perceptual computing”). With the industry analysis logged, Sterling then sounded off on a range of recent developments which included an erotica and porn-laden QR-Code Hotel Room, Jonpasang’s recent Hyper-Matrix ‘physical pixel’ installation, AR Malware and criminality as the litmus test for emerging technologies the high probability of looming AR patent wars. Sterling’s talk was delivered with equal parts humour and humility and he had a refreshing “your guess is as good as mine” demeanour about him when it came to questions about the future of AR as a medium, his only ‘advice’ to the audience was to read Tomi Ahonen.
Chasing the opening keynote was a Gene Becker moderated panel on ‘AR out of the box’ which brought together several panelists to discuss their diverse practices. Historian Rob MacDougall convincingly argued that his discipline was a perfect proving ground for AR and demonstrated this thesis through the description of a range of imaginative projects including audio tours, subversive plaques and Tecumseh Lies Here, a ‘pervasive history game’ exploring the War of 1812. Caitlin Fischer used her talk to provide an overview of the activity of York University’s Augmented Reality Lab over the last several years, which includes R&D crafting “expressive tools for artists” and the deployment of AR in educational contexts (e.g. Breaking the Chains: Presenting a New Narrative for Canada’s Role in the Underground Railroad, designed for public school children).
Designer and researcher Helen Papagiannis led the second panel and used her opening remarks to rebuke Bruce Sterling’s earlier comments that AR was staring down the precipice of “the slope to hell”. This session was not nearly as coherent as the previous one, but it did feature detailed talks from Vuzix’s Paul Travers, who has been working on AR/VR headgear for over two decades and Nathan Kroll from Ad-Dispatch and who outlined how AR is shaping retail experiences.
Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun (1882)
The proceedings wound down with presentations by Gene Becker and Helen Papagiannis, both of whom made a distinct effort to encourage the local developers, researchers and artists in attendance. Despite Becker’s choice to play contrarian and via his laundry list of ’10 reasons why AR will fail’ – he actually made a pretty strong case for creativity within the medium. Arguing that while AR may be the new QR, a socially fraught enterprise, that it leads to cognitive overload, etc. he called for more experimentation and risk taking and yearned for “AR marriages… AR flame wars” the type of craziness we see in MMOs and elsewhere on the web. One of Becker’s most astute observations about ARs failure to obtain a foothold in the marketplace or mass culture was that “the required eyewear technology is always five years away” and—Google Glass notwithstanding—that still seems to be the case.
Helen Papagiannis had the final say at OARN 2012 and she used her presentation to express her deep optimism for the narrative potential of AR. As evidenced by her work with Wonder Turner (an interactive science centre installation) and Who’s Afraid of Bugs? (a pop-up book for the iPad), she is interested in the creation of ‘AR unicorns’ – mediated experiences that elicit wonder and delight. Papagiannis described how she believed the capabilities of the iPad [2 and up] and Kinect are both important benchmarks for experience designers and she wondered out loud if AR theatres may be looming on the horizon.
Film was a frequent point of reference at OARN 2012, while a lot of AR projects seem like tentative attempts to ‘find’ compelling use scenarios, Papagiannis would advise us to relax during this experimental stage as “it took a decade for editing styles to crystallize in cinema”. Becker adopted an even more wide-angle view, and reminded the audience that the decade or two we’ve been thinking about AR is nothing – Étienne-Jules Marey developed the chronophotographic gun in 1882 and it took 45 years before we saw the Golden Age of Hollywood and the establishment of standards in narrative film. So, given this acknowledgment that ‘there are no rules’ at the moment and the nature of the prods and provocations that were made over the course of the day, it will be interesting to see where the OARN community is at the next time the tribes are gathered.