Seeing the Edge: Augmented World Expo in Context with the year in VR Art

The Augmented World Expo (with satellites in Asia and Europe) is the SIGGRAPH for immersive media.  Held in Santa Clara, California, it is often the epicenter of new releases for the Augmented and Virtual Reality worlds.  Over the three days, there was a great deal that was becoming visible and others that were fading from sight.  Much of this had to do with the expanded trade floor, a large area for demos, experiences and play, and the talks themselves, which served as a framework for the rest of the event. And, within the talks, it was of note that much of the third day was programmed by the Virtual Worlds Society, founded by Tom Furness, and spearheaded by pioneers like Chris Stapleton and Jacki Morie. And lastly, the Auggie Awards defined what the AWE community felt was the important advances for the year, with the Best in Show being a surprise (more on this later).

Also, don’t worry; I’ll get to the art part soon.
Session on Spatial object programming, merging ar AND iOt

The most notable panels showed the maturing of immersive media. Aaron Pulkka (Two Bit Media) described his approach to virtual storycrafting, which from European traditions is a dialogic act of making stories together.  Pulkka used examples from the Magic Carpet Ride, the longest virtual ride in existence, to contemporary game design to describe schemas of collaboratively engaging the user in using storycrafting techniques to allow a narrative to tie itself to a reader.  Nathaniel Guy from NASA also gave a stunning case study of using AR with Mars Lander photogrammetry to maximize humanity’s exploration of the Red Planet. And, following a unique thread in the immersive industry, the Women in VR panel showcased how influential women are in this genre, featuring Jacki Morie, Abby Allbright, Jodi Schiller, and Tiffany Willson, who discussed the extensive history of women in VR and their influence on the emerging immersive media industry.

But, the tone of the main lecture hall pointed at the direction of immersive media. For example, while VR was still part of the social justice issues of the Virtual Worlds Society content, industry seems to be moving quickly into AR and the Internet of things. The most stunning talk of the lot was the CEO pf PTC (the holding company that makes the AR software for Unity – Vuforia) talking about small form factor glasses as a point of emergence of a digital ecology between the virtual and the physical through AR. This would be achieved by using AR as the interface to the Internet of Things.  After seeing some of PTC’s proofs of concept, I can see the world taking on a bit of the quality of Keiichi Matsuda’s viral video hit, Hyper-reality, where the entire world became a platform for dense augmentation.

The AWE annual awards, or the “Auggies” are an expression of the industrial community experts of what they feel are the most exciting, innovative, and groundbreaking developments in the field of immersive technology. Without going through them individually, it’s worth noting that the prizes pointed towards AR, wearables, the Internet of Things, strong hand gesture recognition, and environmental integration.  The Microsoft Hololens won for the best hardware, and the Leap Motion Orion as Best Interaction Software Tool. What was surprising was that the People’s Choice was upstart Meta’s headset – a surprise, but perhaps not so much when considering the wider field of view and more intuitive gesture recognition schema. Also, there were mentions of the desire for smaller form factors, which are a harbinger for future-generation headsets.

More likely of interest to the arts community than industry this year, the Virtual Worlds Society’s Nextant Award for life achievement in immersive culture went to Brenda Laurel. Laurel, who has been part of cyber- and virtual culture since its early days, part of Atari, has been a proponent of women in technology and author of the legendary volume Computers as Theatre. Her award of the Nextant is well deserved and a sign of the broader culture within immersive culture. In the arts, the award went to muralists Heavy projects, one of the regulars in the genre for their Digital Neuron, which is a lyrical piece that brings a swirling pink nerve cell in to the wall of architecture.   While Heavy Projects has consistently done crowd-pleasing AR murals around the world, the art area of the AWE lacks diversity, and I would urge artists desiring more industrial visibility to talk to founder Ori Anbar and investigate showing at AWE.

The most interesting piece of news came a couple days after when Apple announced its entry into the AR game, and not at AWE. Apple rocked the AR world two years ago with its acquisition of Metaio, a flexible, robust, and easy to use German AR development platform, without any notice from Apple at all. With the emergence of Apple’s AR Toolkit, they play their hand in the AR card game, and this writer’s question is with articles like “Apple prepares for the Death of the iPhone”, is the next generation personal device necessarily going to be a headset…?

Where does this leave immersion in the media arts?  For educational purposes in design – concentrate on content for VR, seriously. Repeatedly, the narrative looked like hardware is outstripping software this year. There are great new displays coming out, form factors are collapsing, but many are still asking where the killer app is beyond Pokémon Go, (and I realize that this is AR).  From seeing the number of emergent VR shows in 2016-17 (and many curators’ frustration for the lack of inclusion of VR in the Contemporary beyond Wolford, Salazar-Caro, et al), VR is a “stable” platform that is set to give a run for the art fairs.

Although AR has been used as a medium for years from the work at ATR Kyoto in the early 2000’s to Manifest.AR, AR, and its interface to the Internet of Things seem to still be emerging.  I see interaction between worlds and possibly even the intersection with digital craft as being the emerging area for Immersion.

While AR, VR, and MR are developing rapidly, its recognition remains inconsistent, and hardware seems to be quite far ahead of software/content, and few killer apps exist.  However, as industry has certainly seen the money in immersion, it will certainly bring product to market for design educators to explore, media designers to tell stories through, and artists to create transcendent experiences in. While there are groundbreaking exhibitions in 2017 such as Tina Sauerlander’s The Unframed World, the genre will prove fruitful, and I look forward to it.