Academic journal article Afterimage

Spatial Poetics: The (Non)destinations of Augmented Reality Art

Academic journal article Afterimage

Spatial Poetics: The (Non)destinations of Augmented Reality Art

Article excerpt

[Ed. note: This is the first part of a two-part essay.]

Since the early 1990s, the progressive authentication of augmented reality (AR) over virtual reality (VR) in a variety of domains--medicine, military training, robotics, education, communications, entertainment, tourism, design, and art, to name the most obvious--increased awareness of the accuracy of Gilles Deleuze's insight formulated in L'image-temps (1985), according to which the temporal categories of the virtual and the actual had come to exchange and displace one another in a relationship of "indiscernibility." (1) Although this relationship characterized the making of the "crystal image" in contemporary cinema (where the coalescence of temporal layers replaces the succession of shots typical of pre-war narrative cinema), it prefigures the quasi-indiscernibility in augmented reality's spatialization of cinema. The engineers Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino introduced the spatial equivalent of the virtual-actual tie in their formulation of the "real-virtual continuum" to describe the unbroken scale ranging from real to virtual environments, with augmented reality and augmented virtuality located "anywhere between" the two ends of the spectrum (2):

As Milgram's schema specifies, the real-virtual continuum--the unbroken scale ranging from real to virtual environments--is the foundational assumption of digital forms of augmented reality (AR). (3) AR builds up a continuity between the real and the virtual, in which the two categories tend to lose, although never completely, their distinction in relation to one another as they interact with each other. It is this concept of the real-virtual continuum that underlies Ronald Azuma, et al.'s definition of AR that will be used here: AR as a system that "supplements the realworld with virtual (computer-generated) objects that appear to coexist in the same space as the realworld." (4) This supplementing occurs through the addition of dynamic, interactive, and context-specific information to the user's sensory perception of space. This perceptual dimension is pivotal, as it is not the space itself but the perception and experience of the space that is hypothesized to be augmented. In medical applications, for example, a surgeon can wear a head-mounted display (HMD) device equipped with a semi-transparent visor that overlays his or her perception of the patient's body with the preparatory study of the internal anatomy projected on the screen. (5) In automobile applications, AR visualizing systems enable the projection of global positioning system (GPS) cartographic information on the car's windshield or front screen, allowing the driver to see the outside environment through a constantly updated map of the area.


Augmented reality is a perceptual paradigm. To be more precise, it is a perceptual predicament. Considering that the definitive (yet still unachieved) goal is "to create a system such that the user [cannot] tell the difference between the real world and the virtual augmentation of it," (6) the perceptual motivation underlying AR research carries several technical challenges--notably, the imperative to perfect the panoply of technologies that converge to assemble a mixed real-virtual continuum for the observer-participant. From audiovisual (head mounted, wall mounted, handheld) display and playback devices, to human-machine interface systems, to body-tracking and sensing and surveillance instruments, one of the most difficult technical challenges is the requirement for the computer to track where the user is looking and determine what s/he is seeing in order to augment his/her view. (7) This has been from the start the impetus of AR explorations.

In the field of art, AR environments are, effectively, a derivative of site-specificity installation art, in which the site is de/un/re-specified by the activation of computer-generated data. These shifting sites are achieved by connecting spectators to networking systems (mobile phones, GPS, the internet); sensing, tracking, and surveillance technologies; and robotics, which enable the processing of different forms of data--texts, images, sound, light, motion, even heartbeats and smell--in a specific space. …

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