I haven’t posted about any new developments with virtual worlds that the Exploratorium is developing in a few months. Fortunately, my lack of writing about it doesn’t equate to nothing going on in that realm. Exploratorium Island and ‘Sploland island in Second Life continue to thrive with several hundred visitors per week each, guided tours of exhibits, and occasional building parties and building tutorials. We’re thinking about what events would be good to stage there in the coming year. Many new exhibits have been added to Exploratorium Island recently and the space is undergoing a needed make-over. More on these developments soon!
Now I’m going to begin a little detour from immersive 3D virtual worlds and introduce some new experiments with mobile augmented reality (AR) –an emerging technology and practice that allows you to overlay a view of a physical environment or object with virtual content. We did an experiment here at the Exploratorium last year with AR, as part of our kick-off for the celebration of our 40th anniversary. It presented a real-time rendered view of an overlaid interactive 3D model onto a 2D marker that was embedded in the cover design of our quarterly publication, Explore. This was inspired by others beginning to use the print medium as an entre to the technology. I first became fascinated with the idea of location-based augmented reality when I read descriptions of pieces that “locative” artists made in William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition. In his post-cyberpunk story, Gibson describes several large-scale 3D virtual objects that are placed at specific locations meaningful to the story (via geo-referencing). A giant octopus, a field of moving flowers, a re-created scene, etc. Viewers needed to don cumbersome headgear to see these things, which were rendered in high resolution 3D stereo and composited compellingly into a view of a physical environment. It reminded me of things I’d tried previously with slide and video projections at specific locations. In a digitally-enhanced world, with the ubiquity of the Global Positioning System and the mass-market access to it through hand-held devices including smartphones, augmented reality is now a technology that many can experience, and one that museums are experimenting with.
For me, augmented reality represents a slice of a virtual world that people can experience on the go, in their day-to-day lives. It seems like a fluid extension of immersive 3D virtual worlds in that virtual and physical world realities are mixed. There are possibilities for blending communication (social aspects) and user-generation of content in the augemented views. AR is also being heavily influenced by the commercial gaming space, with haptics and full-body gestural interfaces promising more natural-feeling interaction with augmented views. Products like the Wii and Kinect are being used as interfaces to non-gaming content. Open-source toolkits to use those devices are now available. More on that topic soon.
AR technology is in an early stage. Hardware and software platforms are rapidly emerging, open and proprietary systems are vying for developer and consumer attention, business models are being invented, content developers are exploring different uses. Museums are beginning to develop models for use for AR, designed to engage visitors in discovery of “extra” information about objects, exhibits, and places. The New Media Consortium 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition, tracks the time-to-adoption for AR as two to three years. So, it’s an exciting time to see this new technology grow and to work with it yourself to see how you can use it to engage your audiences.