Are we ready for wearable AR?

Arguably the first instance of mobile media, when papyrus was invented in ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, it overcame previous restrictions on writing which (etched in stone) was until this point stationary (Farman, 2012, p. 11). From this point written media is no longer forced to be tied to location – it is “mobile”. Thousands of years later in 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press which overcame restrictions in production speed encountered by the handwriting of books. The printing press allowed mass printing and, due to this, for books to become available to larger number of people (p. 12). In years that have followed mobile media has continued to evolve to overcome the restrictions it has encountered. As we look at the legacy of how these restrictions have been overcome we can learn a great deal about the forms our mobile takes and why. We can apply this understanding to our present moment in which augmented reality, or AR, is poised to again evolve our concept of mobile media.

In the late eighteenth century the Chappe Brothers invented the telegraph, allowing written messages to be sent from long distances (Solymar, 1999, as cited in Goggin, 2006). The telegraph overcame the restriction of space or distance. It grew in popularity and by the 1860’s infrastructure had been laid to create “a truly global communications network” (Headrick, 1991, as cited in Goggin, 2006). The telegraph was soon replaced as a primary means of communication by the telephone as the twentieth century approached (Goggin, 2006, p. 20). The telephone (though not solely) invented by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1870’s made another it possible for “sound to travel along wires” in addition to the written messages able to be sent by the telegraph (p. 20). It was now possible for two people separated by far distances to speak to each other in real time, overcoming the wait for a telegraph to be picked up, read, and responded to.

Around 100 years later, the cell or “mobile” phone has evolved out of this allowing users to overcome the restriction of location in making telephone calls (Farman, 2012, p. 16-17). Ling and Donner describe the cell phone as “a marriage between radio-based communication…and the landline network of hard-wired telephones”. The cell phone uses radio frequencies to transmit sound wirelessly between phones using a network of radio towers (Ling and Donner, 2009, p. 31). In the early 2000’s cell phones gained a number of features and eventually (and most instrumentally) internet access and GPS ability (Farman, 2012, p. 19). It is from this legacy that augmented reality (AR) has emerged. AR is an evolution of the location-based services of internet-enabled smart phones. AR is defined as combining the real and virtual environment “in three-dimensions, real-time, and [is] interactive” (Azuma, 1997, as cited in Liao and Humphreys, 2014).

AR overcomes the lack of interactivity in previous cell phone based location services. The service Yelp, for example, can use a cell phone’s ability to locate the user and provide information about services and locations near the user, but the user cannot fully interact with Yelp in their environment itself. AR overcomes this restriction. Layar, one of the earliest AR phone based services allows the user similar services, but instead of viewing location nearby in a list with the possibility of a picture of the location Layar actually allows the user to look at their environment through their cell phone camera with content placed over the actual image. The names of businesses appear over the business with the option to get more information about a given business (Liao and Humphreys, 2014, p. 2-3).

Yelp (above) as compared to Layar (below)

The Layar video does a good job of demonstrating how AR a breaks from previous location based services. A study of Layar users by Liao and Humphreys in 2014 revealed that beyond the simple use of obtaining information about one’s surroundings, Layar (as an AR techonology which allows users to create their own content) was being used for a variety of purposes.

Layar users can use the app to interact with their real life environment. They can embed information in a place to be viewed by others using the system if they are in the same place.This information can be about services (as demonstrated in the video) or provide historical information about a place. Users can leave messages in particular places (both publicly and privately)(Liao and Humphreys, 2014, p. 9-10). Users can create digital memorials to events that happened in a place (p. 10-11).

Layar can also be used for art and protest. Liao and Humphreys found that “AR artists…attempted to bring in voices or perspectives to places where they have been implicitly or explicitly excluded” (Liao and Humphreys, 2014, p. 11). AR artists have the advantage of being able to create art in locations where they may be stopped from producing physical art. The rules that apply to physical space don’t apply to augmented space as seen through a medium like Layar. The potential is huge. Whether the space will remain as free remains to be seen.

One of the biggest potentials for AR is in wearable technology. Wearable AR would allow the user to interact with AR spaces with out holding up a device (like a cell phone). The user could interact with their environment, augment it, in the truest sense. The most notable wearable AR device is Google Glass (though Microsoft’s upcoming Hololens has been causing a stir).

Wearable AR has run into a number of problems with social acceptance. Google Glass in particular has been plagued by these problems.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.00.49 PM

This has many possible roots. One of the main criticisms leveled at AR (especially wearable AR devices such as Google Glass) is that it is a distraction. However, this is a criticism that has followed mobile media back to the days of the telegraph when Henry David Thoreau referred to the device as a distraction (Farman, 2012, p. 19). Yet this has not stopped the many mobile media innovations between then and now. There are, however, laws in place in some states which outlaw the use of any screens while driving, which would include AR devices like Google Glass (Liao, 2015).

Another potential problem is that devices like Google Glass can act as a wearable camera. The idea that a Glass user could be recording without those around them being aware has caused some to feel uncomfortable (Liao, 2015). In an age of ubiquitous security cameras and camera phones this may at first seem confusing, however, a Glass user can go anywhere. A security camera is fixed and usually visible. This may indeed be the heart of the problem. A security camera is a known presence (and one assumes it is recording) and a phone must be visibly held up to be used as camera. One is able to be aware of being filmed under these circumstances unlike in a situation where one is being filmed with Google Glass. Google Glass can only film for ten minutes at a time, but this is neither widely understood nor going to necessarily be true in the future (Liao, 2015).

We are in the midst of a huge battle over the nature of privacy and devices like Google Glass could soon be the front line. There is precedent to suggest that we will adapt to wearable technology distraction and privacy concerns aside, but as with all things there is a limit (Liao, 2015). The potential is clear. AR stands to allow us to integrate our mobile media with reality, with the world around us. In the process it can allow for a wide range interactions from messages to protests to interactive art. AR has the very real (and literal) potential to change how we see the world. Whether wearable AR is beyond the limit of what we can accept and adapt to or whether it can overcome some of these problems in future designs remains to be seen. For all of our transcending time and space we may just have to wait.

Works Cited

Farman, Jason. (2012). “Historicizing Mobile Media: Locating Transformations of Embodied Space,” in N. Arceneaux & A. Kavoori (Eds), The Mobile Media Reader. New York: Peter Lang. P. 9-22.

Goggin, Gerard. (2006). Cell Phone Culture: Mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge. Chapter 2, 19-40.

Hern, A. (2015, January 16). Retrieved February 2, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jan/16/google-glass-return-four-big-hurdles

Kaman, M. (Creator). (2015). [Website Screenshot], Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jan/16/google-glass-return-four-big-hurdles

Layar. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.layar.com/

Layar AR. (2013, August 15). Bring Print to Life with Layar [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR4eSmmPCxg

Liao, T. (Director) (2015, January 28). Emerging Mobile Technology – Augmented Reality. Mobile Media, MSP 4541, Spring 2015. Lecture conducted from Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.

Liao, T., & Humphreys, L. (2014). Layar-ed places: Using mobile augmented reality to tactically reengage, reproduce, and reappropriate public space. New Media and Society,1-18.

Microsoft HoloLens. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-hololens/en-us

Video demos of iPhone apps – AppVideos.tv. (2010, May 3). Yelp app – iPhone Demo by iPhoneAppDemos.tv [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bffU_kYo564

Yelp. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.yelp.com

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