Three building blocks of AR: visual, locational and aural
Quibbles over whether or not Pokémon Go is really, truly augmented reality (AR) show no sign of going away. Whatever the truth, the amount of quibbling on the subject suggests widespread uncertainty over the meaning and difference between augmented, virtual and mixed reality.
At Calvium, we’re not keen on uncertainty. As far as we’re concerned, we create augmented realities. We take a heritage site – a place redolent with history, context and potential – and draw out its secrets by augmenting visitors’ experiences, adding layers of input and information to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts.
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We create three types of AR – visual, aural and locational. Understand these, and it’s easier to understand what AR is (and isn’t).
The user’s view through their camera viewfinder is augmented by virtual images or text.
This is how you catch Pokémon in Pokémon Go – your phone superimposes a cartoon creature onto the view from its camera, along with the game items which you ‘throw’ to the creature by touching or swiping your screen.
Gotta catch ’em all: Catching Pokémon uses visual AR (image from Flickr)
It was also the tech used by Google Glass, which used a headset resembling a pair of glasses to display smartphone-style apps in the user’s visual field. In many respects, this is classic AR. You’re walking along, seeing what’s happening in the real world, but also checking your email or taking and uploading a picture without needing to use your hands.
When most people hear ‘AR’, they think ‘visual’. It’s understandable. Vision is the most developed of our five senses – up to two-thirds of the cerebral cortex is involved in processing visual input – but it’s not the be-all and end-all of AR.
Sound content is delivered to the user based on their location or the view from their device’s camera.
We use this a lot for heritage apps like Soho Stories. Heritage sites already provide visitors with something to look at, so an augmented experience has to offer something that’s a) more than just visual and b) immersive.
Immersion draws visitors out of the present moment in time and closer to the past, and research has demonstrated the vital role which audio design plays in creating a sense of immersion. Audio-based AR creates the magic moments which make a heritage visit powerful and memorable. It doesn’t have to be tied to locations, either: our app for Somos Brazil triggers its audio content based on image recognition of portraits hosted throughout the exhibition and in the guidebook, adding an immersive dimension to both.
A fictional map is laid over a real one, creating an alternate reality.
This is the second system used by Pokémon Go, and Ingress before that. Both of these games attach in-game importance to places of interest, some of them quite small. A plaque on a wall, a worn sculpture on a street corner, a signpost you might walk past every day – any of these things might be made significant by having part of the game’s interface attached to them. The rest of the map recedes and blurs – streets, rivers and green spaces are important for navigating, but all other features become unreal.
Location, location, location: Using real life places to augment the Pokémon Go experience (image from Flickr)
This works well for large sites and even better for tying multiple sites together by overlaying a period map onto a contemporary one as we did with Hidden Florence. The effect is a kind of psychogeography – a reconstruction of the site and its ambience, in which the present is navigated by way of the past.
Looking forward, a fourth type of AR delivery will be possible in the future – haptic. Haptic output is when a device uses vibration, motion or applies force to the user. The basics of haptic AR are already here – think about the vibrating signal when you pass by a Pokémon in the wild – and are developing fast. Ultrahaptics are working on ultrasound controls for virtual devices, and here at Calvium, we’ve experimented with eliminating the smartphone screen from our heritage AR experiences in The Lost Palace.