Conclusion

I set out to assess the implications of a wholly new medium, one which had received little academic attention written from a media theoretical perspective. I made clear use of an industry connection to gain inside knowledge of the developments occurring to bring this medium to the mainstream. Building a methodology that could sustain the level of analysis that I hoped to achieve, I observed the interactions between technology and industry, market forces and cultural influences. Having positioned my subject at the crest of a curling wave, I employed critical media theory to explore the potential implications of my subject in its wider context of social reality. This ambitious task has granted me insight into how the complex interactions of various fields give rise to social change. Along the way I have revealed seams rich in potential for further analysis.

McLuhan is proven to apply to yet another medium, the perspective he offers served my analysis quite well. A further exploration might make use of his Acoustic and Visual Space probe, Cavell’s basis for McLuhanistic spatial enquiry in his book McLuhan in Space (2002) would be a good starting point for such work, since it applies McLuhanism to the media of time and space, thus a good start for work on the presence of virtual objects. Media analysts occupied with screen design might wish to extend Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) work on remediation to the emergent Mobile AR technology, perhaps from an explicit digital gaming perspective. Those with interest in advertising or business as applied to Augmented Reality would do well to continue Benjaminian thought to its logical end: manipulating a virtual object to hold added-value for commercial enterprise. Those with a more creative bent might enjoy a study of the public perception of AR artworks using Benjamin also. There is scope for research into AR-based social interactions; gaming styles; immersion and identity formation, but this sort of work necessitates that first Mobile AR spends at least some time in public consciousness.

Finally, I believe that I have convincingly laid out an argument showing that AR is currently being developed and packaged as an entertainment technology, but its potential for community-driven, self-proliferating excitement of user-created content makes AR a significant and culturally-transformative technology. Convergence between media types will enable and drive the creation of innovative content which if successful will itself rely on new ways of accessing and viewing content and ultimately new forms of content and user experience entirely. We are at the crest of a wave. Will it wither and let a larger wave pass above it, or will it grow to reach tidal proportions? Despite my predictions, only time will tell.

Mobile Telephone

The Internet and the mobile phone are two mighty forces that have bent contemporary culture and remade it in their form. They offer immediacy, connectivity, and social interaction of a wholly different kind. These are technologies that have brought profound changes to the ways academia consider technoscience and digital communication. Their relationship was of interest to academics in the early 1990’s, who declared that their inevitable fusion would be the beginning of the age of Ubiquitous Computing: “the shift away from computing which centered on desktop machines towards smaller multiple devices distributed throughout the space” (Weiser, 1991 in Manovich, 2006). In truth, it was the microprocessor and Moore’s Law- “the number of transistors that can be fit onto a square inch of silicon doubles every 12 months” (Stokes, 2003) that led to many of the technologies that fall under this term: laptops, PDA’s, Digital Cameras, flash memory sticks and MP3 players. Only recently have we seen mobile telephony take on the true properties of the Internet.

The HARVEE project is partially backed by Nokia Corp. which recognises its potential as a Mobile 2.0 technology: user-generated content for mobile telephony that exploits web-connectivity. Mobile 2.0 is an emerging technology thematically aligned with the better established Web 2.0. Nokia already refer to their higher-end devices as multimedia computers, rather than as mobile phones. Their next generation Smartphones will make heavy use of camera-handling systems, which is predicated on the importance of user-generated content as a means to promote social interaction. This strategic move is likely to realign Nokia Corp.’s position in the mobile telephony and entertainment markets.

Last year, more camera phones were sold than digital cameras (Future Image, 2006). Nokia have a 12 megapixel camera phone ready for release in 2009, and it will be packaged with a processing unit equal to the power of a Sony PSP (Nokia Finland: non-public product specification document). MP3 and movie players are now a standard on many handsets, stored on plug-in memory cards and viewed through increasingly higher resolution colour screens. There is a growing mobile gaming market, the fastest growing sector of the Games Industry (Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) sales chart). The modern mobile phone receives its information from wide-band GPRS networks allowing greater network coverage and faster data transfer. Phone calls are the primary function, but users are exploiting the multi-media capabilities of their devices in ways not previously considered. It is these factors, technologic, economic and infrastructural that provide the perfect arena for Mobile AR’s entry into play.

Mobile Internet is the natural convergence of mobile telephony and the World Wide Web, and is already a common feature of new mobile devices. Mobile Internet, I would argue, is another path leading to Mobile AR, driven by mobile users demanding more from their handsets. Mobile 2.0 is the logical development of this technology- placing the power of location-based, user-generated content into a new real-world context. Google Maps Mobile is one such application that uses network triangulation and its own Google Maps technologies to offer information, directions, restaurant reviews or even satellite images of your current location- anywhere in the world. Mobile AR could achieve this same omniscience (omnipresence?) given the recent precedent for massively multi-user collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, Flickr and Google Maps itself. These are essentially commercially built infrastructures designed to be filled with everybody’s tags, comments or other content. Mobile AR could attract this same amount of devotion if it offered such an infrastructure and real-world appeal.

There is a growing emphasis on Ubiquitous Computing devices in our time-precious world, signified by the increased sales in Smartphones and WiFi enabled laptops. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mobile Internet use has increased as users’ devices become capable of greater connectivity. Indeed, the mobile connected device is becoming the ubiquitous medium of modernity, as yet more media converge in it. It is the mobile platform’s suitability to perform certain tasks that Mobile AR can take advantage of, locating itself in the niche currently occupied by Mobile Internet. Returning to my Mixed Reality Scale, Mobile AR serves the user better than Mobile Internet currently can: providing just enough reality to exploit virtuality, Mobile AR keeps the user necessarily grounded in their physical environment as they manipulate digital elements useful to their daily lives.

The Subscription Options Plugin

My aim is to make my views on Digital Media, Branding and Emergent Technologies as accessible as possible not only to industry types, but to the blog-scouring early-adopting masses. My ongoing series on Augmented Reality has been relatively successful in boosting both the visitation and the subscribership of this blog.

Aside from the content I’ve written this month (May 2009 has been my most prolific since this blog’s inception) I have also started an SEO and social media strategy to extend the reach of the content I write here. I’ll share details later…

Anyway, the key element I want to tell you about in this post is my third strategy to make Digital Cortex portable to readers. I’ve started to provide readers with a range of subscription options, since the most common way for readers to subscribe to any blog and its content are through RSS, Email or Twitter. That’s when I came up with my brand new WordPress plugin.

I realised that my subscription solution might be useful to others also looking to grow their subscribership, so I created this:

The Subscription Options Plugin

This is how your subscriptions could look if you use my plugin.

I’ve turned my HTML code into a PHP-based plugin for all WordPress users that has the exact effect I aimed to achieve – to look good on a page, and for blog readers to easily grasp what each icon stood for.

Once installed it can be placed in any widget-ready area, allowing users to link to their various subscription options with ease.

PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR FULL PLUGIN DETAILS

Constructing A Methodology

Mobile AR is still highly prototypical, and has not received much previous academic attention thus far. A deep analysis of this technology and its implications requires a specially developed methodology, a methodology which acknowledges the pre-release status of the technology, and recognises that Mobile AR represents a fusion of a number of different media technologies. Given that there is no fixed point of entry for analysis, I look to academics writing on the subject of other radical and emergent technologies that (at the time of publishing) were yet to reach the mainstream.

At this early stage of the product cycle there is an interesting interplay between fields. This interplay is assessed in Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing by Kline et al. (2003), and it raises some arguments useful to the further analysis of Mobile AR as a cultural artefact. One of its lessons is that assessing new technologies is fraught with a long-standing academic and cultural issue: the problem of technological determinism. The theory is that new technologies drive social, political and cultural changes, and that the perceived linearity of technical progression is somehow representative of humanity’s own progression, parallel trajectories dependent on the other’s existence. The weaknesses arise when one assigns these same values to their own assessments, which isolate the subject technology from its wider context. Indeed, it is often forgotten that in order to achieve these innovations, social, economic, political and cultural forces have all worked in collusion. Digital Play (Kline et al., 2003), quotes Leiss (1990) in an especially provoking summarisation:

“Strictly speaking, there are no imperatives in technology. The chief mistake … is to isolate one aspect (technology) of a dense network of social interactions, to consider it in abstraction from all the rest, and then relate it back to that network as an allegedly independent actor.”

Leiss (1990: 2) in Kline et al. (2003:8)

Leiss’ point is that academic enquiry should seek to observe its subjects in the light of their true context. He highlights the importance of the “network” as the source of each technology, denying the idea that modern culture is ‘Under Technology’s Thumb’ (Leiss, 1990). A personal observation is that within the “network” also lie the forerunning technologies that gave rise to the newest developments, and the means to develop them further. This idea recalls McLuhan, who to the detriment of Leiss’ argument, was sometimes known as “the most famous media technological determinist” (Straubhaar & LaRose, 2005: 51) who, in reference to man’s “perpetually … modifying his technology” McLuhan (1964: 46) states that “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms”. He hereby suggests a hidden complexity to human-technologic interactions, a complexity I return to later in this work. For now though, these thinkers’ opposing perspectives make a further analysis rather difficult. I recognise McLuhan’s view that there are forces at work within the “network” that need to be addressed, but accept Leiss’ view that I should view the web of interactions as a whole, in order that technological determinism cannot skew my findings. I must reconcile these perspectives in my own approach. Seeking to refrain from any dangerously deterministic hyperbole, I continue the assessment of Mobile AR as an emergent and potentially “network” enhancing new medium, but from which determinist-proof methodology?

Digital Play, though referring mainly to the digital games industry, looks into the complex dynamics between developer, distributor, market and economy. Its critical evaluation of this medium adopts a methodology that suits my own AR enquiries:

“The story of the emergence of interactive play and of its uncertain crisis-filled transformation into one of the premier industries of digital globalized capital is both exciting and revelatory. Historical perspective is vital to critical understanding. We strongly agree with Williams that it is impossible to diagnose the cultural impact of a new medium until the specific institutional circumstances of its development are understood. Moreover, critical media analysis requires historical perspective in order to argue against the deterministic view that technology “is a self-acting force which creates new ways of life [Williams, 1992: 8]”.

Kline et al. (2003:79)

Now, since Mobile AR is such a new and radical technology, it is best considered in terms of other, previously radical technologies and their own timely impact. This approach recognises the emergent nature of Mobile AR technology and the lack of current research in the field, but also allows the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this technology in a relatively safe way: that is, through the lessons learned from full-fledged media. I propose that a useful lens through which to view Mobile AR is offered by an historical analysis of Mobile AR’s better established component media, with a view to producing an understanding of the implications AR holds for society. This approach allows AR to be considered as a product of a convergence of paths: technologic, academic, social and economic, providing the basis for deeper analysis as a consequence.

Gameware: A Case-Study in AR Development

I have been aided in this series by a connection with Gameware Development Limited, a Cambridge-based commercial enterprise working in the entertainment industry. Gameware was formed in May 2003 from Creature Labs Ltd, developing for the PC games market which produced the market leading game in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Creatures. When Gameware was formed, a strategic decision was made to move away from retail products and into the provision of technical services. They now work within the Broadcasting and Mobile Telephony space in addition to the traditional PC market. I use this business as a platform to launch into a discussion of the developments current and past that could see AR become a part of contemporary life, and just why AR is such a promising technology.

Gameware’s first explorations into AR came when they were commissioned by the BBC to develop an AR engine and software toolkit for a television show to be aired on the CBBC channel. The toolkit lets children build virtual creatures or zooks at home on their PCs which are uploaded back to the BBC and assessed:

 

A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures
A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures

 

The children with the best designs are then invited to the BAMZOOKi studio to have their virtual creatures compete against each other in a purpose-built arena comprised of real and digital elements. The zooks themselves are not real, of course, but the children can see silhouettes of digital action projected onto the arena in front of them. Each camera has an auxiliary camera pointed at AR markers on the studio ceiling, meaning each camera’s exact location in relation to the simulated events can be processed in real time. The digital creatures are stitched into the footage, and are then navigable and zoomable as if they were real studio elements. No post-production is necessary. BAMZOOKi is currently in its fourth series, with repeats aired daily:

 

BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment
BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment

 

BAMZOOKi has earned Childrens BBC some of its highest viewing figures (up to 1.2 million for the Monday shows on BBC1 and around 100,000 for each of the 20 episodes shown on digital Children’s BBC), which represents a massive milestone for AR and its emergence as a mainstream media technology. The evidence shows that there is a willing audience already receptive to contemporary AR applications. Further to the viewing figures the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, is in talks to distribute the BAMZOOKi format across the world, with its AR engine as its biggest USP. Gameware hold the rights required to further develop their BAMZOOKi intellectual property (IP), and are currently working on a stripped down version of their complex AR engine for the mobile telephony market.

I argue, however, that Broadcast AR is not the central application of AR technologies, merely an enabler for its wider applicability in other, more potent forms of media. Mobile AR offers a new channel of distribution for a variety of media forms, and it is its flexibility as a platform that could see it become a mainstream medium. Its successful deployment and reception is reliant on a number of cooperating factors; the innovation of its developers and the quality of the actual product being just part of the overall success the imminent release.

As well as their AR research, Gameware creates innovative digital games based on their Creatures AI engine. They recently produced Creebies; a digital game for Nokia Corp. Creebies is one of the first 3D games which incorporates AI for mobile phones. Gameware’s relationship with Nokia was strengthened when Nokia named them Pro-Developers. This is a title that grants Gameware a certain advantage: access to prototype mobile devices, hardware specifications, programming tools and their own Symbian operating system (Symbian OS) for mobile platforms. It was this development in combination with their experiences with BAMZOOKi and a long-standing collaboration with Cambridge University which has led to the idea for their HARVEE project. HARVEE stands for Handheld Augmented Reality Virtual Entertainment Engine.

Their product allows full 3D virtual objects to co-exist with real objects in physical space, viewed through the AR Device, which are animated, interactive and navigable, meaning the software can make changes to the objects as required, providing much space for interesting digital content. The applications of such a tool range from simple toy products; advertising outlets; tourist information or multiplayer game applications; to complex visualisations of weather movements; collaborating on engineering or architectural problems; or even implementing massive city-wide databases of knowledge where users might ‘tag’ buildings with their own graphical labels that might be useful to other AR users. There is rich potential here.

In HARVEE, Gameware attempt to surmount the limitations of current AR hardware in order to deliver the latest in interactive reality imaging to a new and potentially huge user base. Indeed, Nokia’s own market research suggests that AR-capable Smartphones will be owned by 25% of all consumers by 2009 (Nokia Research Centre Cambridge, non-public document). Mobile AR of the type HARVEE hopes to achieve represents not only a significant technical challenge, but also a potentially revolutionary step in mobile telephony technologies and the entertainment industry.

Gameware’s HARVEE project is essentially the creation of an SDK (Software Development Kit) which will allow developers to create content deliverable via their own Mobile AR applications. The SDK is written with the developer in mind, and does the difficult work of augmenting images and information related to the content. This simple yet flexible approach opens up a space for various types of AR content created at low cost for developers and end-users. I see Mobile AR’s visibility on the open market the only impediment to its success, and I believe that its simplicity of concept could see it become a participatory mass-medium of user-generated and mainstream commercial content.