Interview with Bruce Sterling: Augmented Reality and Transitioning out of the Old-Fashioned "Legacy Internet"
It is just over a week until Augmented Reality Event, and I know there are a lot of people, including me, who are totally psyched to see what unfolds there this year. Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, Blaise Aguera Y Arcas, Jaron Lanier, Will Wright, Marco Tempest and Frank Cooper will join 107 speakers from 76 augmented reality companies on a single stage to tell a momentous story of a technology of our time (see here for more from Bruce Sterling on AR & my previous post).
As Bruce Sterling points out, in the interview below, Augmented Reality is “truly a child of the twenty-teens, a genuine digital native,” and one visible indication that:
Interview with Bruce Sterling by Tish Shute and Ori Inbar
Tish Shute: As you so memorably put it, “AR is a technovisionary dream come true – something really rare, and you have to be really patient for those….”
What is best and worst, in your view, about the way Augmented Reality technovisionary dream is coming true and emerging to flourish in the wild?
Bruce Sterling: The best part is that AR is truly happening and is a lot of fun, and the worst part is that it’s happening in a Depression. If AR had broken loose in the dotcom days when cash flew around like soap bubbles, man, that would have been psychedelic.
AR that is even more of-our-time than “social media.” AR has arisen directly from modern technical factors that just didn’t use to exist. It’s made from shiny new parts, and is truly a child of the twenty-teens, a genuine digital native. It’s a little kid and it has to walk before it can run, but it’s great to see it walking.
Tish Shute: As Jesse Schell pointed out last year at ARE2010, “The whole point of AR is to see things from a different point of view…How can there be a more powerful art form than one that actually changes what you see?” What do you feel will be the most impactful application of AR in people’s everyday lives?
Bruce Sterling: I’m all for impact, but it’s pretty clear that the people who would weep for joy to have Augmented Reality are people whose reality is already damaged. People who need reality augmented as a prosthetic, in other words, so that they can achieve an “everyday life.” This is like the impactful but underappreciated role of the Internet in the lives of people who’ve been shut-in. If you’re laid-up in a hospital bed, a laptop is a revolution in convalescence.
But that kind of “impact” doesn’t sound too exciting or too profitable. My guess would be that the biggest arena for “impactful AR” would be augmenting cityscapes for foreign people who can’t speak the local language, can’t read the signs, and lack time to learn the local reality. Imagine, say, the Brazilian overlay for Moscow. You could show up, read your native Brazilian overlay of that city, do your business, eat, sleep, buy, leave, and scarcely “be in Moscow” at all. Constructed right, the AR Brazilian Moscow might even be a better Moscow — a Moscow that Russians themselves would pay to visit.
Tish Shute: You pointed out last year, in your opening keynote for ARE2010, that less immersive forms of AR have their own merits. We are still not seeing much “head mounted display weirdness” yet, but many other forms of AR are emerging – mobile, webcam, projected video, sonic augmented reality, even sticky light. You noted, practically everything that AR is involved in is a transitional technology. But since you spoke last year at ARE2010, which of these transitional technologies have shown the most promise for AR?
Bruce Sterling: It’s got to be handsets. Smartphones. The stats there are just amazing. The smartphone biz makes the personal computer business look like a Victorian railroad. When I read a guy like Tomi Ahonen, who talks about transitioning out of the old-fashioned “Legacy Internet,” that idea is startling. But AR is one visible indication that the Internet really could look like a “legacy.” The Legacy Internet as an old-fashioned, dusty, desk-based place best left to archivists and librarians, while the action is out on the streets.
Tish Shute: This year we have seen gestural interfaces go mainstream. What are the most interesting directions for gestural interfaces that you have seen emerge in recent months?
Bruce Sterling: To me, the most “interesting” part is seeing people do gestural stuff in public. William Gibson, my fellow author, observes that cellphones have stolen the gestural language of cigarettes. There’s lots of fidgeting, box tapping, ash-swiping, slipping boxes in and out of pockets… People quickly learn to do that without thinking twice, and they forget how weird it looks. It’s “design dissolving in behavior,” as Adam Greenfield puts it.
The gestural hack scene for the Kinect has been amazing. It’s like watching 1950s Beatnik dancing go mainstream.
Tish Shute: You have observed that Augmented Reality is Glocal which not only gives us different flavors of augmented experience but is “a departure from earlier models of tech startups, where you usually have like three hippies in a local garage. Now you’ve got German-American-Korean outfits like Metaio, and Total Immersion has a Russian affiliate. They’re inherently multinational, both inside the company and out.” What flavors of glocalness do you hope/expect to see at Augmented Reality Event this year.
Bruce Sterling: I’d be pretty happy to see some AR input from Brazil, India, and South Africa. I seem to be picking up a lot of followers in my Twitter stream from those locales. If I saw some Augmented Bollywood Reality, that would pretty much make my day.
Ori Inbar: What sessions will you go to at ARE this year? Who do you want to meet at ARE 2011?
Bruce Sterling: I make it my business to hang out with artists, but I’m hoping to drill down more on the technical aspects. For instance, where exactly are the bottlenecks in building animated augments? It looks like we’re about a sneeze away from jamming some crude Hanna-Barbera cartoons into real spaces. But the devil is in the details there.
Ori Inbar: Your commentary about the evolution of the AR industry over the years had significant focus on style. Is the AR industry dressed to kill yet? Any glimpses of promise in that direction?
Bruce Sterling: I’m not “pro-style” in every possible aspect of life, but as an Augmented Reality critic, it’s clear to me that if you claim to “augment” reality, then you should work hard to augment it — struggle to make it better. Otherwise you might as well call yourself “Defaced Reality,” or even “3D Spam.” When I see that kind of crudity and carelessness in AR, I’m gonna call people out on it. I know there will be the AR equivalent of cheesy billboards and gang graffiti, but I never much cared for those, either.
The industry’s videos have improved radically in the past year and a half. It used to be all about “look at my grainy, shaky handheld video of my cool new AR hack,” but nowadays the biz has really pulled its socks up.
If AR is about “experience design,” as I think it basically is, then eventually, as a matter of intellectual consistency and professional pride, everything you create will be considered part of “the experience.” That’s the industry’s way forward — that’s what it would do if it was grown-up.
AR people already look better than most similar geeks in the gaming business, and some day, I really do believe that augmentation people will become glamorous. They won’t be supermodels, but they’ll be about as chic as, say, professional set designers. Because AR is set design, in a way; it’s real-time interactive set-design for three-D spaces.
Ori Inbar: In the Layar Launch in 2009 you said “it’s the dawn of AR…”, at ARE 2010, you followed up on the theme saying “it’s 9am in the AR industry.” What time is it now?
Bruce Sterling: I’d be guessing it’s around 9:30 AM, but come on, that’s just a metaphor! ARE we all gonna blow off at 4:30 PM and have a beer, or is AR one of those cruel tech startups where nobody ever gets a personal life?
Ori Inbar: Are you reading any new fictional literature about AR that inspires you? And/or What interesting design fictions for AR have you come across recently?
Bruce Sterling: Well, I’m always interested in creative people who just plain make stuff up. Because that’s why I commonly do myself. The stuff that “inspires” me is usually stuff that I just didn’t expect to see. But when I don’t expect it, that usually means I wasn’t paying enough attention. I plan to pay a lot of attention to AR this year.
I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to write fiction nowadays “about AR,” because it’s no longer a fictional topic. It’s become like writing fiction “about cinema.” You can write good fiction about someone who works in cinema, but not fiction about cinema itself. AR is not sci-fi “Augmented Reality” any more, it’s become a real-world phenomenon, a new industry of real augmentation.
With that said, I must remark that I sit up straight whenever I see Marco Tempest do stuff. Magicians are all about mystery and wonder. You wouldn’t see a magician, say, using AR to work an assembly line, or re-order library books, or find a pizza joint in Barcelona. And that’s great. Marco is always gonna do something freaky and out-there, and even though he’s a tech magician, it’s never about the tech first. It’s always about his ingenuity in finding new ways to employ new tools in creating a magical experience for his audience.
Marco’s not an entrepreneur, he’s not gonna revolutionize people’s daily lives or invent Web 4.0, but even if AR becomes “old hat” some day, it’s never going to be old hat when he’s doing it. The guy is a pro, and I’m quite the fan.