I was out walking over the weekend. As usual, when I deliberately put my phone away, I found myself paying attention to the little details around me. The steam coming from a compost pile. The faint mist coming off the lake in the park. Signs and waymarkings. Painted graffiti and stickers slapped onto lampposts and other street furniture.
I’ve been reading a bit about the metaverse recently. There’s not a great deal to like about the vision I’ve seen so far. A blatantly commercialised, oversold and unrealistic view of the future of social spaces.
But it seems certain, given the general direction of technology and investment, that through whatever platform it might be delivered, we’re likely to see increasingly ubiquitous use of Augmented Reality.
So I found myself wondering how that might end up changing the urban spaces through which I was walking?
I’ve asked myself similar questions before. For example “If I get off a train and arrive somewhere new, how would I know if I were in a ‘smart city’?” Would I be pushed to use and install apps and services on arrival? Or would all of the tech just be behind the scenes silently helping me enjoy the city? Or perhaps that’s not the goal and all of the tech is intended to be visible only to those in the mayor’s bat cave.
There have been plenty of visions for what it might look like to live in a city that is flooded with augmented reality. Keiichi Matsuda’s HYPERREALITY, for example.
But what will that same future look like if you don’t have any of the devices or screens necessary to make it function? How will the technology reshape the spaces we live in?
AR needs high-speed, always on internet connectivity. The first obvious changes are the spread of 5G antennas and the installation of more public wifi hotspots. More antennas on buildings and attached to street furniture. Or just hidden in bins.
Placing AR requires geospatial data and identifiers. Things like spatial anchors and good GPS fixes. GPS accuracy in cities is a known problem and for AR you need very accurate data. More antennas will improve accuracy through “sensor fusion”. Google, Uber and others have been working on this.
Presumably though, for really accurate placements, the technology will rely on markers and QR codes as a way to site and trigger “experiences” that will work within the nearby spaces.
QR codes seem like they’re here to stay. So we can expect more codes, in more places: on shop fronts, a-frame signage and billboards. Printed onto signs held by people in the street and stickers slapped onto any available surface.
Go read Tim Maugham’s Paintwork, or watch the short film.
In a way the colour or size of these markers doesn’t matter? They don’t really have to attract your attention. It’s your device that needs to notice them. So presumably they’ll stay black and white, and be printed at sizes that depend on camera resolution? But they’ll need to be in your eyeline so the cameras can passively scan them and offer you a link.
(Presumably the AR experience that a marker might trigger won’t necessarily be limited to the point at which it was located. They might trigger something that follows you down the street? Or waits for you to reach a certain spot?)
Popup installations in the street, in town squares or vacant shops will be an obvious way to market the technology and encourage engagement.
Expect crowds of people looking at things you can’t see in a specially designed set.
AR will likely change how people move through urban spaces, which in turn changes how everyone else experiences that same location. Google maps and other wayfinding tools has changed how traffic flows. Pokemon Go, geotagging and films already change people’s behaviour.
People might suddenly prefer different routes through a city because they offer better AR triggers and experiences. Or maybe to just avoid them.
Crowds will appear and move based on experiences which are hidden from anyone not using the same devices or licensed to access the same content. And, just like with Pokemon Go retailers and shops will attempt to draw and capture that traffic.
From the “outside” this might look like odd flocking behaviour. Or maybe it’ll be predictable around timed events.
Perhaps shops will offer rental clothing, so you can dress up to play a game with others across a city? So more people wearing costumes, hats and badges?
Costumes are a natural way to carry more markers. To turn you into a monster or grant you some armour. So there’s an incentive to wear them. And they will, not incidentally, act as free branding and marketing for the game. Expect fashion brand tie-ins.
Or maybe people will just wear printed at home codes depending on what game they’re playing?
Longer term, presumably urban spaces themselves might be redesigned to accommodate AR.
For example dedicated spaces might help to safely segregate, e.g. AR games, from general foot traffic. Parks, squares and other open spaces might end up having areas of play surfaces, like you’d see in a park. But largely unmarked, because the game map or area can be projected by the AR devices, allowing a single space to host a variety of games.
It will take a long time for general street signage and waymarkers to change. But you can already see assumptions of web and interface access built into access to car parking, COVID check-ins, and more. Information signage and physical maps might slowly disappear as a result.
Will planners revisit and update “The Social Life of Urban Spaces” in light of AR? You can watch the companion video for that 1980s study here, its fascinating.
Cities are already palimpsests. AR, if it takes off, will add yet more layers to them. The process will, in all likelihood, follow existing patterns of erasure, redesign, adaptation and appropriation.
None of us really experience urban spaces in the same way. Intersectional experiences apply everywhere. As machines move into urban spaces they are placing new demands on how they are design. And if the digital blends with the physical then there will be many more factors to consider?
And that’s as far as I got on that particular walk.