(Augmented) Reality

[Ellie Marvin is a master’s student enrolled in the Digital Scholars reading group this semester.]

In their chapter entitled “Augmented Realities,” Casey Boyle and Nathaniel A. Rivers write about their definition of the term ‘augmented’: “The language of “augmented realities” reflects the very etymology of the word augment (augmentare), which suggests an increase, not an addition. To augment, then, does not simply entail supplementing some base—a priori ontological substrate—but rather increasing, as in elaborating the real, increasing its dis/ connectivity” (88). They place this definition in relation to their conception of augmented publics. They go on to write, “Augmentation is not simply more, but instead the qualitative activity of tuning, of activating certain channels, certain broadcasts” (89) and “How can we understand, or better yet, come to know such qualitative change that augmentation (as an increasing activity) provides?” (90), further complicating their definition of augmented reality.

During Friday’s meeting, we split into groups again to discuss the reading. Our group was very concerned with the definition of augmented, the definition of reality, and where those two terms meet to create augmented reality as a digital tool. We grappled with the idea that Boyle and Rivers present of increasing reality. How is it done? In what context? We did not have enough time to come to concrete conclusions, so I would like to explore this idea more in this blog post.

Does augmented reality offer an increased reality? Boyle and Rivers also write, “We often think of the augmentation of physical space via digital overlays or augmented reality (AR) as supplements or additions to that physical space. For example, in widely available online dictionaries, augmentation (in the augmented reality definitions) often refers to “technology” that “’augments’ ( = adds to) that real-world image with extra layers of digital information” (“Augmented Reality” 2010)” (88). These ‘extra layers’ then provide more information—but is that an increased reality?

Boyle and Rivers used three case studies of locative augmented reality tools, including Pokémon GO and Google Maps. Pokémon GO is a popular app which allows users to catch Pokémon, 3D digitally rendered creatures, in an AR environment. Users played on maps which reflected their own real spaces and gave the app access to the camera in order to situate Pokémon into the real environments around users. Google Maps is a frequently used location tool which offers users maps of places and businesses. Google Maps has three modes: map view, satellite view, and street view (Fig. 1). Map view displays a typical cartographic view of the surrounding area; satellite view shows the same map but enhanced with satellite imagery; and street view places the user on the street and shows them the area around them from the perspective of a person walking along the street.

Fig. 1: Screencaps from http://google.com/maps of map view, satellite view, and street view, respectively

Our group was unable to reach a consensus of which of these three modes of Google Maps is augmented reality, which is reality, and which is a representation of reality. In terms of the definition which the authors deny, that augmented reality simply adds to reality, all three modes of Google Maps offer an augmented reality in that they all offer information about places and businesses in the area, something which is invisible without the aid of technology. (Pokémon GO also fits into this definition with its addition of Pokémon, Pokéstops, Pokéballs, and other features.) However, in terms of the definition which the authors offer (reiterated in the first paragraph of this post), it is unclear which of these technologies, if any, truly “increase” reality.

Some members of the group argued that the only mode of Google Maps which attempts to be augmented reality is the street view, as it places the user into what is typically viewed as an augmented reality environment. Yet both street view and satellite view, some argued, present reality more clearly because of their inclusion of photographs to create their digital landscape. Some claimed that map view is the only mode of Google Maps which does not augment reality, and that it is not even a representation of reality because it does not attempt to replicate the natural surroundings of an area in the same way that street view and satellite view do. I disagree with this stance. All three modes of Google Maps, I believe, augment reality, and all three are representations of reality. None of them attempt to replicate reality exactly, not in the same way that many augmented reality and virtual reality environments and technologies attempt.

Fundamentally, it is difficult to come to a deep understanding of Boyle and Rivers’ definition of augmented reality because they offer only a (albeit substantial) definition of augment, but not reality. I feel their case studies of Google Maps, Pokémon GO, and Ingress would have benefited from a clearer definition, though I understand that their primary focus was on augmented publics and not necessarily on defining augmented reality. Nevertheless, their working definition of augmented reality is hindered by their lack of an attempt to define reality and thoroughly explain how it can be augmented in their terms of increasing and “elaborating the real.” Our group would have been much better equipped to come to a conclusion if the authors were clearer on some of their terminology.

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