Augmented Society Debate and Meet the Scene (report)

Report by Nadia Palliser about the Augmented Reality events at DEAF2012.

Augmented Society Debate and Meet the Scene (report)

Image: Keiichi Matsuda

The old post office of the city, a relic of passing on messages, befits this debate perfectly. The Augmented Society debate raises the questions of what we want to share and how we want to go about doing it. All debate on the social use of new technologies is essentially about this but Augmented Reality really seems to push the envelope on this one.

Similar to The Internet of Things but taking a different technological angle on the same issue, Augmented Reality radically changes the design of public spaces. Magically finding and sharing stuff as you walk around town, the meat and potatoes of AR ultimately boils down to the rights to the data you are accumulating. Personally I am interested in how AR might work in public libraries: not only as a layer on top of a (dwindling) physical collection but as a trigger to address privacy issues in a non-commercial public space.

But firstly, what is AR exactly? In the first edition of Ar[t] magazine, Helen Papagiannis defines AR as “a real-time layering of virtual digital objects which include text, images, video and 3D animations on top of our existing reality. This is made visible through AR enabled devices such as smart phones or tablets equipped with a camera.” Taking a look at her book ‘Who’s afraid of Bugs’, ( the wild interface with a tarantula running over your hand certainly is impressive and helps people suffering from arachnophobia. Two flies in one go, so to speak.

But lest we forget: AR proliferates because your data is put into databases, either voluntarily as in social media or increasingly in the form of Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence devices are embedded into our environment and programmed to anticipate and log our behaviour. Such an environment as with The Internet of Things, drastically challenges the user’s concept of sharing. Seduced by the visual and functional properties of AR, we forget that our data will continually become logged, perhaps compromising your identity on the long run. For instance, buying your cigarettes over a stretch of ten years and then quitting will affect your health insurance premium at a later date. A good critical pun on this was made at the Augmented Reality Workshop (

Christian van ‘t Hof looks at AR’s contemporary use, successful functionalities and how money is earned through them. For example, to track traffic jams Tomtom gives all tracked cars random numbers. In this way Tomtom gets around privacy issues to register congestion in real time. This information gives the driver the opportunity to take a different route but might also give a fish & chips van a unique selling location: at the heart of the blockage, selling chips on the waiting time of the drivers. According to van ‘t Hof, maps and numbers make AR come alive. But, he says, who will be managing the numbers? A third party between hardware and providers, doing the identity management? Will such a third party give access to these kinds of valuable data, say for the Fish & Chips stand guy looking to sell his food?

Identity management doesn’t make any distinction between objects and humans, says van ‘t Hof. This concept still makes me feel uncomfortable but I suppose my 20th century concept of identity needs some radical revision. Something the second speaker, Mireille Hildebrandt will assist me with. As a lawyer she asks the question: does Augmented Reality enrich or diminish our identity? First she clarifies the three levels of privacy. Privacy’s oldest definition is the right to withdraw. Secondly, privacy manifests itself as a means to control your personal information, a major effort in the twentieth century. And thirdly, and this is the latest addition to the concept, privacy is defined as the freedom from unreasonable limitation on the construction of identity.

To keep our easy-go-lucky attitude on privacy in social media in check, Hildebrandt sums up some real circumstances of privacy infringement. The new trams in Rotterdam, for example, were not only been equipped with cameras but also microphones to track ‘criminal conversations’. This has been stopped since the RET did not openly communicate this to its travelers. Again by raising awareness, the increasing lack of control is curbed to support our individual construction of own identity – the essence of privacy. Hildebrandt raises some interesting questions: 1. Will it still be possible to unplug? 2. Will I have some kind of effective control? 3. Will I be continually anticipated, based on my statistics? Basically creating a form of manipulation?

The next speaker, artist Mark Shepard seeks Ability in urban environments with a capital A. Looking for empowerment instead of manipulation: not only living in it but being able to actually change that milieu. Since computing is leaving the desktop, the sentient city becomes capable of anticipating. Apart from your favourite coffee bar beaming discounts to your smartphone (the most used app at the moment) Shepard is interested in other uses of AR. How to occupy the imaginary of the near future sentient city? His app Serendipitor ( helps to find something by looking for something else. The app for the iphone combines directions generated by a routing service (in this case, the Google Maps API) with instructions for action and movement inspired by artists such as Vito Acconci and Yoko Ono.

All his initiatives make subtle subversions possible in public space. So receiving tingles through some kind of mutual data sent by a passer-by ('hey I like you!') to your phone and then accordingly to some kind of vibrational wearble; well I confess I wouldn’t mind trying it out. To me Shepard wants to maintain a sense of play ground in public space; something absolutely vital to the quality of life and which may be compromised by AR’s strong (commercial) functionality. Tunnel vision orientation on the high street is already highly narrow; it reduces public space to an environment in which you need material stuff. I think the world will be a sorry place for it and I get the impression so does Shepard. By creating concrete artfacts, he concludes on a bright note, we can envision what kind of future we really want with AR.

Julian Oliver takes Shepard’s standpoint a step further. His project Artvertiser ( also plays with existing commercial platforms to accordingly do something else with them but Oliver is radical in a European kind of way. To illustrate, Berlin is obviously the only city that would have a bakery named “Hacker’ where Oliver obviously goes for bread and to meet with kindred spirits. I have walked one of his Reclaim the Streets walks in Rotterdam. Artvertiser overlays existing billboards with artwork, cartoons and small subversions of what is on the poster. So, Oliver noted as we walked past the huge billboard of a healthy Dutch woman of C&A pointing her finger at you (to say, I always think ‘buy more stuff’, you could place a gun perfectly in her hand, just for fun. The gear is still a bit cumbersome but the idea to use this infrastructure not only for commercial objectives is interesting. Oliver criticizes our desperate need for visual unity, always choosing to see the image. Shepard also make a comment on this during the debate: the ‘optocentrism’of AR, always emphasizing the visual. Newstweek, Oliver’s next project is a device for manipulating news read by other people on wireless hotspots. Built into a small and innocuous wall plug, the Newstweek device appears part of the local infrastructure, allowing writers to remotely edit news read on wireless devices without the awareness of their users. See:

From a Man on the Moon perspective, the future of AR actually looks to be pretty boring. Like receiving discounts as you walk past a coffee bar, dealing with yet another commercial layer on top of the world. At the same time, a sense of control needs to be found again, crucial to a contemporary understanding of sharing. What do these affordances do to us before they become domesticated? Take a look at Keichi Matsuda's superb films on AR for instance. It is abundantly clear that the combination of AR and ever more intelligent machine learning in AI will have a big impact. Especially if these data are connected to knowledge institutions such as your medical dossier or health insurance. As Mireille Hildebrandt stated eloquently, there is no double contingency in AR. This is something the infrastructure of maps and numbers of AR desperately needs to give some kind of control back to the cooks of all these valuable data, the meat of potatoes of AR. Double contingency means that when two people (alias objects in identity management) meet for the first time, they guess at each other, at each other's interests, relations etc. This is essential to dialogue between humans but also between machines and humans. A system of mutuality and trust, gaining access to information because you are giving the system valuable information.

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