Rhetorical Spaces

A blog about writing, space, and technology

Augmenting History


If you've ever played Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, then visiting Alcatraz Island in San Francisco is a very surreal experience. The entire time I was touring the island, I had to fight the urge to jump up on the handrails and pretend I was doing a kick flip onto the lower deck. (I can't skateboard at all; I definitely would have broken my neck.) As someone interested in augmented reality, this strange convergence between digital and physical spaces was truly fascinating.

Of course, I didn't spend the entire time at Alcatraz trying to find "S-K-A-T-E." Mostly because my wife and I were utterly engrossed in the free audio tour that came with our admission. As we listened, the nondescript cells came to life as the narrator pointed out the beds occupied by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, the prisoners involved in the infamous Alcatraz escape of 1962. The audio tour even included actual recordings from when the prison was still operational. When I walked into the dining hall, I almost jumped when a prison guard from the 1950s shouted at me to "shut up and eat!"

Being at a location with an audio tour is not simply a matter of looking; it's a matter of inhabiting, and the audio supplement works so well at a place like Alcatraz because it allows the prison to remain visually unadorned with distracting signs and images. Unlike stationary placards or historical markers, it allows visitors to move through the space, thus creating less blockage in more popular areas. Moreover, it creates a more immersive historical experience by coating the visual artifacts with layers of aural history.

According to Emma Rodero, audio-based narratives are so compelling because the listener is "constantly building [their] own images of the story in [their] mind." Similar to reading a book, audio narratives are a fundamentally participatory media in the sense that it leaves space for the listener's imagination to participate in the creation process. For location-based tours like Alcatraz, then, the location itself provides a kind of visual and material catalyst to the user' s reception of the audio.

But what about locations (historic or otherwise) that don't have prominent visual elements? The site of the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, looks like a normal field unless viewed through the augmented reality tour offered by InSite. Creating location-based tours, then, must take into consideration how the space itself has already "written" the visual elements of the scene. If rhetoric is about discerning our "available means" as writers, then we must consider what is (and is not) already available as a rhetorical factor within the location itself.

As John Tinnell points out, physical spaces operate as "techno-geographic interfaces" within AR applications: "AR enables the creation of media that incorporate geographic flows as a vital element in the composition or design process" (78). For Tinnell, writers of location-based projects must maintain a sense of openness or contingency to the "accidents of the sensible" present within a location that will always serve as constitutive rhetorical forces within the user's reception and experience of the project. As the Alcatraz example demonstrates, writers of location-based tours must allow the development of AR content to remain "permeable and transparent" to the location itself (80).

Writing a location is always a form of co-authorship. As augmented reality becomes more advanced and ubiquitous, we must remain careful as writers not to simply incorporate AR media unreflectively into location-based writing projects. Rather, we must carefully consider how the augmentations respond to the rhetorics already embedded within the user's environment.