Hybrid World

For the past couple of blog entries, I’ve been  talking about the virtual world and the real world as separate spaces which we all inhabit.  But there are technological innovations which are overlapping these spaces through a device most of us carry on us at all times- a smart phone.  It’s called augmented reality and it has the potential to change the way doctors diagnose a treat patients, the way the military operates in the field, and the way advertisers reach us.  On a more individual level, it is going to change how we drive and get directions, how we travel, and the myriad ways we entertain ourselves.  Augmented reality is simply additional information laid on top of what we are seeing or experiencing in reality.  Most of us are actually consumers of augmented reality information already and all the time.  Any time the yellow first-down line appears in a football game, or an anchor draws or highlights something on top of news footage, we are taking in augmented reality information.  One of my favorite applications for this new technology is for tourism.  Visitors to historic sites could potentially use their smart phones to view historic sites as they were in past centuries or access more information about the site.  One project to research this technology  called iTacitus, Intelligent Tourism and Cultural Information through Ubiquitous Services, a European Union project from 2006-2009.

This video shows the iTacitus project in Turin, Italy and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.  The project developed a few different elements of augmented reality to provide visitors a richer experience at historic and cultural sites.  One is superimposed environments, which were the historic views of buildings and sites mentioned earlier.  Another similar element they called annotated landscapes would show information, videos, pictures, etc. about a certain site.  For example visitors at the Coliseum could watch videos of gladiators fighting (reenacted, of course).  Spacial acoustic overlays would add another sense into the equation by providing the auditory experience for visitors to hear what the space might have sounded like in past times.

I see projects like iTacitus as the cure to those stupid audio tours at most art museums.  You know, the ones where you check out an oversized phone-meets headphones device and have to type in the number of the painting you’d like to hear more information about.  Then a dull voice comes on and drolls on about how the painting was composed during the artist’s whatever period after his girlfriend dumped him and then he became obsessed with the image of something and this painting is the first in that whatever series.  I’m sure many art historians are quite interested in knowing all that information.  I just happen to not be an art historian.  New augmented reality projects give you the access to the information you actually want  to know in a form we all know how to use, not just whatever information the institution can put together in whatever form they can afford.  And the best part is its interactivity.   We’re no longer passive tourists, but active learners and explorers of history and culture while visiting museums and historic sites.  As a history nerd, and the girlfriend of an even bigger history nerd/civil war reenactor, I’m really excited about this technology.

Beyond just being a cool technology for uber nerds and museum geeks, this technology is a great educational tool.  Students visiting historic sites can interact with the information, which is proven to help people learn better.  And since the technology is housed in a smart phone, there is no interface to learn, which means people of all ages can use it.  This also means that people with disabilities can also take part, since information comes in multiple forms so the hearing or sight impaired have ways to interact with the spaces and can do so independently of a translator or guide.  Some museums, such as the Museum of Natural History in New York, already are starting to develop apps for visitors to use while in the museum.  These apps mainly help visitors navigate the museum, but hopefully museums will implement augmented reality technologies in the near future.

For more information on the iTacitus project, see their website here.