By Sebastian Haller
Augmented reality is a deceptive term. Because its definition seems to be straightforward – it openly implies the augmentation of reality –, it somehow obscures its intrinsic features. This is due to a couple of reasons. Since its technological as well as discursive introduction in the early 1990s, augmented reality devices are commonly understood as imaging technologies that depict ‘reality’ and, at the same time, enrich this ‘reality’ by means of virtual information. This concept of AR was coined by its most prominent actors as the ‘reality-virtuality continuum’ (Milgram/Takemura/Utsumi/Kishino 1994, Azuma 1997). Surprisingly, even after twenty years after its introduction, the paradigm of the ‘continuum’ is still considered to be the central aspect of AR technologies; this is surprising, not because of its longevity – twenty years is an incredibly long time-span in the context of digital technologies –, but because of its intentional negation of possibly the only real consensus there is in the everyday as well as scientific discussion about mediated objects: That mediated content/media content is not reality – even though, one must add, every media requires a real material carrier. Neither media theorist nor ‘ordinary’ users of an imaging device, such as a digital camera, believe that any mediatised/mediated entity, i.e. something that is represented by the means of something else, is reality. But still, the discourse of augmented reality is still relying on this deception of ‘reality’ as its sine qua non. Unquestionably, contemporary digital devices offer a high degree of- to borrow from literary theory- of verisimilitude, or, with Roland Barthes, they convey an enhanced effet de reel
But if the conviction of ‘reality’ in AR is highly problematic, what further characteristic is intrinsic to AR? What happens if you detach the notion of ‘reality’, its sine qua non as implied by the Milgram and others, from AR? Does AR have any other characteristic features if you refute the notion of ‘reality’? If so, are those features strong enough to understand AR as a distinct imaging technology? Basically, this paper argues that, on the one hand, the supremacy of ‘reality’ can be abolished and, on the other hand, AR can still be defined as a distinct imaging technology. This objective will be achieved by focusing on the construction and augmentation of space. Instead of understanding the devices of AR as augmented reality, this paper will argue that according imaging technologies are (a) constructing a (unified) image space that reacts in real-time to a real physical environment and (b) they are augmenting this space with virtual information – i.e. AR devices establish an augmented space instead of an augmented reality. This augmented space necessitates four essential features: (1) a material carrier or medium, (2) a form that is perceptible through the medium that conveys a space, (3) the augmentation/distortion of this space through (whatever) information that is set outside the logic of the unified, homogenous space and (4) a spectator who (not only perceives) but decodes this complex relation between 1, 2, and 3 in the process of cognition.
Furthermore, I suggest that ‘augmented space’ is not just confined to the means of digital AR devices. Instead, augmented space is a visual phenomenon that emerges in all possible imaging technologies that are able to construct space and, at the same time, break with this (unified) space through additional (virtual) information. This means, augmented space is considered to be a phenomenon of visual culture that is not confined to new media technologies, but also to ‘old’ media, such as ‘traditional’ (painting, drawing, graphics etc.) and reproductive media (photography etc.). Paradoxically, this information (1) counteracts the space and, at the same time, (2) is related to information inside the space. Evidently, there are profound differences in the augmentation of space in regard of its technologies; e.g., digital devices that are able to react in real-time, augmentation of space is time-based and reacts ‘live’ to its environment and the movement of the user (see fig. 1). On the other hand, augmented space in ‘traditional’ technologies of image production, for instance baroque graphics, is a static phenomenon. Such graphics make use of an ‘augmented space’ to offer information that cannot (or hardly) be depicted ‘iconically’ (see fig. 2 and fig. 3).
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List of Figures:
Fig. 1: Tamiko Thiel, ‘Transformations’ (screenshot), 4-channel video installation and interactive online map, 2012.
Fig. 2: Joseph Friedrich Leopold, Heilige Sippe im Tempel, copper engraving, undated.
Fig. 3: Dirk Volkertsz, Triumph des Isaak, Sohn Abrahams, copper engraving (cropped), 1564.