Friday, 3 December 2010

A new place: augmented reality and other future technologies influence on our understanding of place.


Augmented Reality (AR) has arguably been around since as early as the seventies. In the last decade, as technology improves and we find ourselves ‘online’ more often than not, AR and its possibilities have become the speculative topic of choice for some architects and artists. In this essay I will attempt to describe AR’s origins and history, with examples of its application to help understand what it is capable of and how it might develop. I will describe its possible influence on how we experience space from a phenomenological point of view and discuss its application in architecture both in the design of spaces and the design process itself. I hope to give a clearer picture of its possible advantages and disadvantages allowing me to imagine how architecture can react to it. I believe we are, like the architects of the early 20th century, about to enter a new era where architecture can utilise a whole new arsenal of technology when designing. AR is just one of a number of new phenomena yet to be utilised by architects to their advantage. Can Augmented Reality improve architecture? Will it change how we define place?

Myron Krueger is an interactive computer artist who pioneered a form of augmented reality in 1975 in his exhibition ‘videoplace’. Kreuger also ran a lab that investigated an alternate reality through the use of video, projectors and computers. In his exhibitions users could interact, in real time, with onscreen information. (Kalawsky, R. S. 1993) Krueger was excited by new and readily available technology. He explored how we interact in an augmented space. During the late 90’s we began to see crude forms of augmented reality appear through our televisions. The offside lines on a football pitch a simple example. It is only recently however that AR has exploded in usage and popularity with the advent of the smart phone. Now, people are permanently online. Streaming of information is good enough for large amounts of data to be passed on with ease. The ideas for AR’s every day application have existed for decades but we have reached a point now where anything is possible given the technological advances and simple cheap applications are emerging every day. Architects and artists are starting to push the boundaries and dream about what might happen now that it is possible to place computer generated graphics and sounds over our real time perception. There are other advances too. The Internet of things, an idea that everything is connected, even inanimate objects, is becoming a reality. Objects continuously communicating with each other. Sensing temperature or monitoring traffic.

I believe this urge to communicate a wider amount and type of information has been a driving force for architecture before. In 1924 the Vesnin brothers published a concept design for the Pravda building in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). It was to be the headquarters of the local newspaper and was designed as the ultimate sensory machine: loud speakers, moving banners, and a projection screen were all integrated into its design. Maybe the day’s headlines could be displayed at the top of the building? This was directly influenced by Tatlin's Tower which also included plans for information to be continuously communicated with the people through loudspeakers, projectors and telegraphs beaming from the tower. It even included plans to project messages onto the clouds. (Grey, Camilla 1986) Such fanciful architecture was, I believe, a direct response to an excitement and realization that the world was entering a fantastic new technological era and architecture should exploit such advances. It also gave buildings a chance to be more than just a space. The building could also give daily information and updates. Its fa├žade a huge screen for the people. The Russian futurists and constructivists believed that this extra layer would enhance a place. Did the excitement of such technologies cloud their judgment? Is this extra information necessary? Might it in fact take away from how connected we are to a place?

In 2009 Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry presented their augmented-reality system, which they developed as part of MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group. It used off the shelf devices to achieve its goals. A phone, a projector, a camera, and a mirror. The device turned any surface into a source of information. They showed a wall or desk being used to read articles. Directions projected onto the floor. The Mitsubishi Research Lab developed a similar device to help track inventory. Sun seeker, an iPhone application tracks the sun and gives endless information relating to it. A quick look at the user comments shows a fitter of solar panels saying he uses it every day.

A new dimension

But what exactly is AR and what role does it have in the future of other technological advances? Jeff Alexander of ALSA described it well. “If one were to imagine reality as a spectrum in which actual reality is on the left and virtual reality on the right, augmented reality exists somewhere in the middle, but closer to actual reality”(Alexander, Jeff. 2010) Can a blurring of the two enhance our experience of a space? People have different levels of spatial awareness. Some people never get lost for instance while others lack a strong sense of orientation. Some people respond better to an extra amount of information while others focus more through abstraction. Maybe these new technologies can blur the lines enough to help both cases. If this other dimension already exists, why not utilise it combine it with our immediate sensory appreciation of place and see where it takes us? Some architects are already exploring this other dimension. Dentsu London recently made a film using ipad to extract light over long exposures (Dentsu London 2010). It hinted at a whole world of data that exists all around us now that we cannot see unless we try with unconventional methods. As this data becomes easier to access it will have to be addressed from an architectural point of view.

How might we use this data to enhance not just the end product but during the design process itself? Jeff Alexander suggests: When visiting a site, architects try to get a sense of the place. We allow all of our senses to collect data. We view the place and its context. We listen to the sounds, take in the smells and feel the breeze. This data collection serves as an important framework that is used as a catalyst to launch an idea. But our senses are unable to detect all the information available regarding a particular place, like history, sun angles at other times of year, or snowfall….architects will be able to see these things on site while standing there, thereby adding new dimensions to the design process….(Alexander, Jeff. 2010)

If we take this even further can we start to imagine a design process more rooted in the place? Imagine using computer aided design in an augmented reality setting. We are not that far away from standing with a client on site looking at the first draft of a building. Why not make some changes there and then? Again, these are very exciting ideas from a technological point of view and could have serious implication for issues like workflow and accessibility but a deeper understanding of how our sense and understanding of place needs to be looked at.


Within a decade, the major population centres of the planet will be saturated with trillions of microchips, some of them tiny computers, many of them capable of communicating with each other. Some of these devices will be telephones, and they will also be supercomputers with the processing power that only the Department of Defence could muster a couple of decades ago. Some devices will read barcodes and send and receive messages to radio-frequency identity tags. Dirt-cheap microprocessors are beginning to permeate furniture, buildings, and neighbourhoods; products, including everything from box tops to shoes are embedded with invisible intercommunicating smartifacts (Rheingold, Howard. 2003)
This is a massive change to our landscape. Architecture and in particular urban planning will have to come up with new ways of dealing with these changes. During the last big change in urban planning with the emergence of the new radicals a main argument was that our system of urban planning, and you could extend this to architecture in general, was based on a series of strategies that were thought up before the invention of the automobile, television and radio among other things. Such huge changes in the way we live our lives, they argued, demanded huge change in our planning and design policies. I would suggest the changes happening now and about to happen will have far bigger implications for the way we live our lives.

“the city will change far faster than the ability to understand it from a centralised perspective, let alone formulate plans and politics that will have the desired outcomes” (Mitchell, William J. 1996)

If we can imagine the guidelines involved in urban planning of the previous 200 years, civic space, public space, and town centres etc. we should start to identify the new driving forces behind the movement of people in urban areas. People will use their phone or other devices to guide them through the landscape. We need to start designing with not just the orientation of the sun in mind but also identify, possibly using new technologies, where people are now gathering and how they will likely move between places knowing what they know. Having access to unlimited amounts of data.

“Landmarks are physical places that (maybe temporarily) have lots of pointers in their direction. Obscure backwaters are just places without pointers” (Rheingold, Howard. 2003)

Similarly I can imagine a scenario where a building might be appreciated by how little augmented reality is applied to it. Will an architect boast that his/ hers is the most viewed building in town using one’s eyes and only their eyes? Again these are exciting changes but without fully exploring them they might end up being detrimental to our experiences. By looking at what a place means maybe we can better understand where this technology should take us.

A new place?

If we consider a place to be a qualitative, “total” phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its properties, without losing its concrete nature (Christian, Norberg-Schulz 1980) then we must start to consider future technologies as just another facet of this “total” phenomena. No more or less important than geographical location or climate. If all of these elements were considered dimensions of a place in their own right could augmented data become a unifying force? Or, maybe we should view augmented data and other future technologies as an enhancing element of a places “character” where “character” denotes the general “atmosphere” which is the most comprehensive character of any place.(Christian, Norberg-Schulz 1980) Augmented reality and to a larger extent future technologies will become another element that defines “place”. A big criticism of previous modernist and functionalist movements was its abandoning of this deeper understating of place. It is easy to imagine the same thing happening with any new movement embracing this new technology made even more dangerous by the speed at which these changes will come about. I believe we should start to try to utilise any new technology to further enhance our understanding of place. If we pool all of our information together and make it available to everyone once they are in a place we can bring a better understanding and deeper sense of belonging to all places.

“It is evident, that the eye is educated by the things it sees from childhood on, and therefore the venetian painters must see everything clearer and with more joy then other people” – Goethe, Italienische Reise, 8. October 1786.

What if we could also see what the Venetian painter sees? Or at least an element of what he understands about a place to help us better understand. We have always been confined to our bodies and our immediate sensory environment when designing but now we must learn to design while considering augmented, reconfigurable, virtual bodies that can sense and act at a distance but also remain partially anchored in their immediate surroundings (Mitchell, William J. 1996)

If we start to look at how we design this shift in approach could have implication for fundamental aspects of the design process. When designing a floor plan or a site plan a system of hierarchy is usually employed helping to locate entrances and windows and walls. These are usually designed with circulation a key design principle. If we suppose that with augmented reality and the internet of things will come changes in how we move and where we tend to move to and from we might start breaking down our rigid ideas of how spaces are connected and circulation requirements. Adjacency of spaces may become less important given we no longer need to travel to certain parts of a place to get the information we need. That could have profound implications for design. A new logic will be required.


Massive and unstoppable changes are around the corner and architecture in particular is in a perfect position to exploit and embrace these new changes for the good of all. The design process itself will benefit unimaginably from these new advances but its how they are used and for what purpose wherein lays the potential problems. Designing for the future bearing in mind the profound changes to our everyday lives will be difficult. If augmented data begins to take away from our sense of place and belonging we might see a reaction of it and a return to more traditional design processes. I think this would be a mistake. Architects and all designers will still design with human needs in mind. They are just more evident now and documented beyond the idea that there can be any excuses. Watch this space.


Alexander, J. 2010, "Life, annotated: the emerging field of augmented reality adds to what we see.", Landscape architecture, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 66-68-73.

Christian, N. 1980, Genius loci : towards a phenomenology of architecture Academy, London.

Dentsu London 2010, Making Future Magic: iPad light painting, edn, Dentsu London, London.

Grey, C. 1986, The Russian Experiment in Art, Thames & Hudson., London.

Kalawsky, R.S. 1993, The science of virtual reality and virtual environments : a technical, scientific and engineering reference on virtual environments, Addison-Wesley, Wokingham, England.

Mitchell, W.J. 1996, City of bits : space, place and the infobahn, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Rheingold, H. 2003, Smart mobs : the next social revolution, Basic Books, Cambridge, MA.

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