Superpowers to the People – Augmented World Expo 2015


By David Cox

SuperPowers to the People: Augmented World Expo 2015: An introduction to an audio interview with Professor Steve Mann (see link at end of article). The augmented reality conference AWE2015 is coming up and its theme is “Superpowers to the People”, and as usual the buzz is around Meta AR, the Kickstarter based firm that developed a headset and developer kit based around UNITY. Since 2013, the first year of META’s development has seen it grow considerably from a 3D printed housing prototype variation on the Epsom “Movio” glasses on which it was originally based.

META’s innovation was to add a ‘kinect’ or leapmotion style META tracker to the front bridge-of-the-nose area to act as the basis for where your computer knows where to place objects in your field of view from your ‘point of eye’ (POE) to use the jargon. This tracker knows also to ‘see’ your hand and to interpret it as the device with which objects are being manipulated, moved and transformed.

Steve Mann, Chief Scientist at META AR is a true pioneer of both wearable computing and Augmented Reality, and has been building his own wearable devices since 1974. I first met him in 1995 at the MIT Media Lab on a research visit.

A strong believer in personal freedom, Mann believes that wearable computing, especially the ability to manage one’s personal space as it pertains to the recorded image is a path to democracy. He views technology like META as a great equalizer in the war against surveillance. Against the top-down vector of ‘surveillance’ he posits ‘sousveillance’ which is ‘seeing from below’.

Simply put, if we are all wearing devices that enable us to view each other, this effectively neutralizes the one-way vector of power that cameras in the hands of the powerful makes possible. Of course in order to for sousveillance to become feasible, there needs to be the social consensus in place first. But one step toward this is to be sure, is an affordable universal principle of wearable technology that facilitates customization and ease of use. The wearer truly should be able to configure their field of view and the nature of all that which is augmented over that field of view. With META AR (AKA Spaceglasses) at least that version of META AR that has been made available to developers since 2014, the tracking technology works well enough to permit this, as do the developer tools, based as they are around the free 3D and 2D game engine UNITY.

I interviewed Steve Mann in the lead up to Augmented World Expo 2015 where he will be delivering a speech on the history of Augmented Reality as well as holding workshops on META viewing tools. Mann spoke of the difference between what he called the “Big AR” of the early 1960s – that of the type popularized by Ivan Sutherland and the famous “Sword of Damocles” head mounted display of the Stanford research labs during the cold war. These were large, tethered rigs tied by cables to mainframe computers hooked up to cumbersome looking binocular visors the size of bike handles.

Mann’s own “Little AR” by contrast, developed in the late 1970s when he was but twelve years old and built from more or less found materials, was aimed squarely at empowering the individual, who thus untethered could walk around, and have his or her data made available to him or her either in motion or in situ.

As the number of AR headsets today proliferates almost exponentially and the market becomes saturated, veterans like Steve Mann are in a position to lay down some of the guiding principles as to what makes an AR ecosystem of content provision by the user successful. One of the defining characteristics is openness of configurability by the user of their resources. If a system is closed, it undermines the whole basis of a meaningful AR, hence the failure of Google glass, according to Mann as he outlines during my interview (see link below).

Google glass exudes privacy. Privacy of sight. Privacy of seeing. And through its utterly closed ecosystem of use and apps, stands in stark contrast the notion of a democratic and participatory role for what should be as free and open to use as the low cost pay-as-you-go cellphone. We have a long way to go before any system of AR is truly of ‘power to the people’, but the lowering of costs is a matter of time. A language of AR and a syntax of use, both incumbent upon the correct management of tools and their education is key here. This is where policy comes in. The relationship of the UK government to the Raspberry Pi foundation comes to mind. Massive subsidy in order to promote broad literacy and creative expression in the population. We need an Arduino style AR revolution. A pi-AR if you will. If Lenin urged Dziga Vertov to make an ‘art of twelve kopeks’, we today need an AR of fifteen dollars.

And, the user must be able to customize to their own specifications as much as possible, right down to the hardware where possible. The iPhone and the iPad are closed models rendering the user a consumer of prepackaged services. AR offers a new opportunity of aesthetics in a way also. A new set of social relations defined by interesting meaningful relationships based on data, places and people. The experimental possibilities of drifting through open fields of participatory urban spaces, and moving to new ways of working and living together through those less managed open spaces might be possible. A non-neoliberal technologically mediated commons, in which AR assists in the development of newly reimagined urban possibility.

Interacting through this environment, both figuratively and literally, we need to encourage democratic and participatory models of use for AR. Just as Bruce Sterling identified a SPIME – time, space and virtual space An augmented subject can often consider herself to be self-consciously a spime in that she occupies both the real world, the virtual world simultaneously as her data influences her decisions and actions as her body occupies space. It is with the proliferation and deployment of very low cost wearable computers based on interoperability and the principle of the user as subject that Augmented Reality is beginning to mature as a medium and as a technology. Therefore just as with any new technological shift, a new language should logically follow. These and other concepts will be discussed by Steve Mann as part of the general theme of this year’s AWE2015 which is “Superpowers to the People”.

From cinema came the language of the close up, the long shot and the jump cut, and from computers came the save-as, the cut-and-paste and the selection box. AR is sure to bring with it its own language with such terms as “flowspace” (the space in which the subject moves such that their data moves with them meaningfully), objects as interface (reaching out to door handle with AR can have the effect of unlocking the door). Thus, a kind of dance of the interplay and overlap of things, places and people with the information pertinent to them, all the time, in real time will spawn its own new kind of terminology and lingo. It is the performative language partly of theater, urban planning, of cinema, and of dance and manners. From the world of filmmaking we might call it the experience of Augmented Reality, with its floating-objects-in-space and holographic dancing-objects-interacting-with-the-world around-us a kind of mis-en-scene and directorial scene blocking in real time. Everyone a director of their own real-time experience.

New ways of seeing are thus required, to quote John Berger, where the age-old Renaissance principle of what Mann calls the ‘point of eye’, the exact position of the iris where the world we view converges on our gaze needs to be rethought, all over again. Its one thing to have all the data of the world around you converge on your eyes only. Quite another to consider these tools for the population beyond yourself and your own personal needs.

Can we strip away from the singular point of view of the typical user as depicted in the PR materials of Augmented Reality his sense of entitlement and ownership and control, and perhaps through the very same tools, replace them with a new set of ways of viewing the world, less possessive, more inclusive, more considerate of the needs of the planet and is all-too fragile membrane of a surface? Along with the need for a new language of AR is a new language of being in the world which possibly such technologies might just help usher in. If so, Professor Steve Mann is just the kind of progressively minded visionary whose pioneering work in the field gives him the right, quite literally, to light the way.

I interviewed Steve Mann on May 15th, 2015

Here is the link to the audio interview

A link to Augmented World Expo 2015

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