Rhetorical Spaces

A blog about writing, space, and technology

Celestial Realities


Augmented reality is on track to become a $120 billion industry by the year 2020, AR startup Magic Leap just received an unprecedented $800 million in C round venture capital investment, and Vuforia, a leading vision-based augmented reality platform, was recently purchased for $65 million by PTC. Without a doubt, the last few years have seen a staggering amount of interest in AR technologies. As a result, some of the smartest people in technology, business, marketing, and design are starting to flock to this emerging industry. But for some reason, they can't seem to convey the potential of this technology beyond kids looking at models of 3D planets.

This might seem like a strange trope, but it's actually more fitting than you think. After all, isn't outer-space the perfect metaphor for augmented reality? Kind of like the "final frontier" of computational advancement? Popular media often uses outer space as a symbol for curiosity, exploration, and territorial conquest, and the child-users in the videos are the future explorers, or inheritors, of this impending technological unknown.

Or, to phrase it less optimistically, this trope exposes the underlying colonialist impulse of "augmented reality" as a mass medium. When I say that AR "colonizes space," I mean it in two different ways: First, AR colonizes space in the more obvious sense that digital advertisements, social media feeds, email reminders, and solar systems will visually populate the physical spaces of everyday life. However, there is another, less obvious form of colonization taking place within AR development.

When Google released it's beta-version of Glass, one of the biggest complaints was that the device was essentially a smartphone that you wear on your face and thus failed to live up to its potential as an AR optimized optical display. Well, Google has responded to its critics by taking on an even more ambitious AR program: Project Tango. At first glance, Tango seems indistinguishable from other AR devices and platforms. I mean, the promo video even features a kid staring in wonder at an augmented solar system! However, if you read up on the technology behind Tango, Google is actually taking a very different approach to how its technology orients digital content in physical space.

Tango is basically a smartphone/tablet with an AR enhanced camera. The camera combines three computer vision technologies that allow it to track and map its physical surroundings with incredibly high degrees of accuracy: motion tracking, area learning, and depth perception. Unlike image or GPS-based AR technologies, Tango uses this computer vision technology to generate a 3-dimensional map of the user's surroundings. This "map" is called an ADF (Area Description File), and subsequent Tango applications can draw upon the spatial data within this file to create additional overlays.

In many ways, Tango extends the logic of other Google mapping projects, such as Google Street View, just on a much more precise scale. One of Google's core missions is to "organize the world's information," but it seems like Project Tango is more of a pursuit to "organize the world" itself. What we're seeing with Tango (unsurprisingly) is a continuation of the digital hegemony that Google currently wields within screen-based media: they're not seeking control of AR content so much as the spaces and processes through which people will access it.

But who cares? Wouldn't something like project tango just move as that much closer to the era of "ubiquitous computing?"

Well, it matters because there are social, cultural, and political implications to technology companies tracking what counts (and what doesn't count) as potentially augment-able space. Take for instance Microsoft's promo videos for the Kinect. Their "retail clothing scenario" video depicts a customer walking into a clothing store where an AR mirror automatically overlays a digital dress. The customer does not do anything to approve of the augmentation nor the gendered clothing items the mirror (super)imposes onto the customer's body.

This kind of "proxy augmentation," in which digital overlays are subordinated to the physical objects they represent, is one of the most prevalent depictions of AR for commercial purposes. One of the leading partners of Project Tango, Lowe's, has invested in an AR app that overlays furniture within customer's homes so that they can see an accurate spatial representation of a new kitchen stool before clicking "Buy."

The trope of celestial augmentation merely serves to obscure this underlying capitalist impulse currently driving the commercial AR industry. Similar to any new technology (like a spaceship, for instance), we want to believe that AR will be leveraged for altruistic purposes and allow us to test the limits of human knowledge, wonder, curiosity, exploration, etc. When, in reality, it's far more likely to be leveraged for more mundane consumer activities, the same ones that have always colonized the digital and physical spaces of everyday life.