Does AR Replace Reality?

Jean Baudrillard - photo by Hendrick Speck

There’s not a lot of research on the effect of digital initiatives and augmented reality in museum spaces.  This is not surprising; augmented reality as a scholarly definition only re-entered the lexicon in 2006 in part due to Lev Manovich’s The Poetics of Augmented Space (oddly enough, this specific article is not available via Manovich’s website, but the numerous articles there provide a general idea of his argument in Poetics).  Research in museums predominantly focuses on the artifact over the interaction (check out the National Gallery’s list of fellowships to see); research in education predominantly focuses on formal settings versus informal (though Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice has affected informal research greatly); and research in Computer Science and HCI only seems to consider museums as a footnote.

I found a few articles where a confluence of these subjects occur — it’s not a perfect match for any, but that means overlap occurs in other interdisciplinary spaces.  One such article is Miranda Brady’s Subjectivity Through Self-Education:  Media and the Multicultural Citizen at the National Museum of the American Indian, a case study in two augmented reality platforms utilized at the NMAI:  digital kiosks where patrons can gain more information on an exhibit’s wares, and an immersive documentary about native cultures.  The case study does not strive to make sweeping generalizations, but rather looks at this specific museum and its specific mission to see if these specific tech choices made the desired impact.  But as with any study, much was learned outside the scope of the hypothesis.

The digital kiosks interest me the most, as they are an example of augmented reality where the subject determines the interaction with an artifact.  Brady notes the limits of the kiosks, namely that they are fact repositories, offering no greater cultural insight or further avenues of study or debate.  This leads to a discussion of the lack of interactivity in “point-and-click” or “fact-finding” AR, which is consistent with my hypothesis that true authentic interaction needs to incorporate outlets of interest and debate rather than determined facts.  The next part was unexpected, and fascinating:  “The idea that kiosks do not merely augment objects but become the object themselves is consistent with my observations of the NMAI’s virtual kiosks” (Brady, 2010).  Brady explains that younger patrons focused predominantly on the kiosks, and in a number of cases either did not initially relate the kiosk to the real artifact or were ignorant of the real artifact completely.  Culturally, older patrons were less likely to access the kiosks either due to reticence or the throng of children utilizing them, meaning that the kiosks either did not work in providing greater content, or they enforced a notion for younger patrons that the digital image was the point of self-education rather than the authentic image (2010).

There is a great paragraph in here about a beaded work called Nations, created by Jenny Ann “Chapoose” Taylor, which deserves a blog entry of its own in relation to the limits of AR.  But for now I will stick with these defined limits, namely in regards to younger patrons.  A great fear of the museum world, since the time of mass reproduction, is the loss of authenticity of the image.  This has played out from printing and forgery to analog and digital communications, and basically every great philosopher in between has weighed in on the matter.  My favorite is Jean Baudirllard and the simulacrum (who is a complete beast to really understand; this short introduction is the best primer I have come across).  We live in a time where we have lost our relationship with reality, to where the world is hyperreal, and it would make sense that kids of today have no footing in reality, and the real artifact is thus rendered useless and without value. The great thinkers of the 20th Century (and where are the great thinkers of the 21st Century, or is there no time for thinkers today, what with the need to constantly produce content in order to satisfy an RSS public?) all considered this to be a big deal.  I consider it to be a big deal too, but I don’t know exactly why.

My interest is in a true augmentation, a true relationship with the real.  Developing an augmented reality that can exist on its own is vital to the financial future of the museum (members can interact without being there), but a true augmentation would strengthen the relationship to the real, creating a supplement for it rather than a rejection of it.  Is that possible in a world where the people comfortable with AR don’t seem as comfortable with R?

Works Cited

Brady, M. (2010).  Subjectivity through self-education:  Media and the multicultural citizen at the National Museum of the American Indian.  Television and New Media: 12(5), 441-459.

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