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<nettime> Learning from Prada (PART 2)
Lev Manovich on Wed, 22 May 2002 22:22:54 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Learning from Prada (PART 2)


Lev Manovich (www.manovich.net)

The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada
[May 2002]




PART 2: Augmented Architecture
[posted 5/22/02]


I derived the term ³augmented space² from an older and already established
term ³augmented reality² (AR). Coined around 1990, the concept of ³augmented
reality² is opposed to ³virtual reality² (VR). With a typical VR system, all
the work is done in a virtual space; physical space becomes unnecessary and
its vision is completely blocked. In contrast, AR system helps the user to
do the work in a physical space by augmenting this space with additional
information. This is achieved by overlaying information over the user¹s
visual field. An early scenario of a possible AR application developed at
Xerox Parc involved a copier repairman wearing a special display that
overlaid a wireframe image of copier insides over the actual copier the
repairman was working on. Today the scenarios for a everyday use are
imagined as well: for instance, a tourist with AR glasses which overlay
dynamically changing information about the sites in the city over her visual
field. In this new iteration, AR becomes conceptually similar to wireless
location services. The idea shared by both is that when the user is in the
vicinity of objects, buildings or people, the information about them is
delivered to the user ­ but if in cellspace it is displayed on a cell phone
or PDA, in AR it is overlaid over user¹s visual field.

The demise of popularity of VR and the slow but steady rise in AR and
related research in the last five years is one example of how augmented
space paradigm is taking over virtual space paradigm.  As we saw, if we use
these system for work, VR and AR - the virtual and the augmented - are the
opposites of each other: in the first case the user works on a virtual
simulation, in the second she works on actual things in actual space.
Because of this, a typical VR system presents a user with a virtual space
that has nothing to do with the immediate physical space of the user; in
contrast, a typical AR system adds the information directly related to this
immediate physical space.

But we don't necessarily have to think of immersion into the virtual and
augmentation of the physical as the opposites. On one level, the difference
whether we can think of a particular situation as an immersion or as
augmentation is simply a matter of scale, i.e. the relative size of a
display. When you are watching a movie in a movie theatre or on big TV set
or playing a computer game on a game console connected to this TV, you are
hardly aware of your physical surroundings; practically speaking, you are
immersed in virtual reality. But when you watching the same movie or play
the same game on a small display of a cell phone / PDA which fits in you
hand, the experience is different: your are still largely present in
physical space; the display adds to your overall phenomenological experience
but it does not take over. So it all depends on how we understand the idea
of addition: we may add additional information to our experience ­ or we may
add an altogether different experience.

³Augmented space² may bring associations with one of the founding ideas of
computer culture: Douglas Engelbardt¹s idea of a computer augmenting human
intellect.  This association is appropriate, but we need to be aware of the
differences as well. The vision of Engelbardt and the related visions of
Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider assumed a stationary user ­ a scientist
or engineer working in his office. Revolutionary for their time, these ideas
anticipated the paradigm of desktop computing. Today, however, we are
gradually moving into the next paradigm where computing and
telecommunication are delivered to a mobile user. And while it is still more
efficient to run CAD, 3D modeling, or Web design software while sitting in a
comfortable chair in front of a 22 inch LCD display, many other types of
computing and telecommunication activities do not require being stationary.
Thus augmenting the human also comes to mean augmenting the whole space in
which she lives or through which she passes by.
 

What about the phenomenological experience of being in a new augmented
space?  What about its cultural applications? What about its poetics and
aesthetics? One way to begin thinking about these questions is to approach
the design of augmented space as an architectural problem. Augmented space
provides a challenge and opportunity for many architects to rethink their
practice, since architecture will have to take into account that layers of
contextual information will overlay the built space.

But is this a completely new challenge for architecture? If we assume that
the overlaying of different spaces is a conceptual problem not connected to
any particular technology, we may start thinking about which architects and
artists have already been working on this problem. To put this in a
different way, overlaying dynamic and contextual data over physical space is
a particular case of a general aesthetic paradigm: how to combine different
spaces together. Of course electronically augmented space is unique since
information is personalized for every user, since it can change dynamically
over time, since it is delivered through an interactive multimedia
interface, etc. Yet it is crucial to see it as a conceptual rather than just
as a technological issue, as something that already was often a part of
other architectural and artistic paradigms.

Augmented space research gives us new terms to think about previous spatial
practices. If before we would think of an architect, a fresco painter, or a
display designer working to combine architecture and images, or architecture
and text, or incorporating different symbolic systems in one spatial
construction, we can now say that all of them were working on the problem of
augmented space: how to overlay layers of data over physical space.
Therefore, in order to imagine what can be done culturally with augmented
spaces, we may begin by combing all of previous cultural history for useful
precedents.

To make my argument more accessible, I have chosen as my examples two
well-known contemporary figures. Janet Cardiff is a Canadian artist who
became famous for her ³audio walks.² She creates her pieces by following a
trajectory through some space and narrating an audio track that combines
instructions to the user (³go down the stairs²; ³look into the window²; ³go
through the door on the right²) with narrative fragments, sound effects and
other aural ³data.² To experience the piece, the user puts on earphones
connected to a CD player, and follows Cardiff¹s instructions.  In my view
her ³walks² is the single best realization of augmented space paradigm -
even though Cardiff do not use any sophisticated computer, networking and
projection technologies. Cardiff¹s ³walks² show the aesthetic potential of
overlaying a new information space over a physical space. The power of these
³walks² lies in the interactions between the two spaces - between vision and
hearing (what the user is seeing and what she is hearing), and between
present and past (the time of user¹s walk versus the audio narration which
like any media recording belongs to some undefined time in the past).

Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Liberskind can be thought of as another
example of augmented space research. If Cardiff overlays a new data space
over the existing architecture and/or landscape, Liberskind uses the
existent data space to drive the new architecture he constructs. The
architect put together a map that showed the addresses of Jews who were
living in the neighborhood of the museum site before World War II. He then
connected different points on the map together and projected the resulting
net onto the surfaces of the building. The intersections of the net
projection and the walls gave rise to multiple irregular windows. Cutting
through the walls and the ceilings at different angles, the windows evoke
many visual references: narrow eyepiece of a tank; windows of a medieval
cathedral; exploded forms of the cubist/abstract/suprematist paintings of
the 1910s-1920s. Just as in the case of Cardiff¹s audio walks, here the
virtual becomes a powerful force that re-shapes the physical. In Jewish
Museum the past literally cuts into the present. Rather than something
ephemeral, an immaterial layer over the real space, here data space is
materialized, becoming a sort of monumental sculpture.




[PART 3 will be posted shortly]

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