Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

This TED talk by Peter Molyneux:

…demos Milo, a hotly anticipated video game for Microsoft’s Kinect controller. Perceptive and impressionable like a real 11-year-old, the virtual boy watches, listens and learns — recognizing and responding to you.

The demonstration begins with an explanation of how Milo is constructed. A combination of the following three elements allow Milo to exist:

  1. A Kinect Camera
  2. Artificial Intelligence developed by Microsoft
  3. Emotional Artificial Intelligence built by Lionhead Studios.

Milo moves through a synthetic environment predicated on User-directed biofeedback/body gestures: no mechanical controllers are necessary. Unfortunately, Milo’s introductory learning curve [which is integral to the "game" leveling system] involves inherent gender bias: if you’re a girl, your initial game variable is a Butterfly whereas if your a boy, you’ll be presented with a Snail.

The demonstration goes on to illustrate how Milo’s face is comprehensively AI driven. His facial movements include blush response, nostril “flare” size [indicating stress], “body matching” [causing neuro-linguistically driven facial alterations] and responses to verbal cues. Peter then describes how Milo’s personality development is predicated on a Cause-and-Effect dynamic. This causality is showcased via 3 examples:

  1. The User can choose to direct Milo to squash a snail: if the User does it will effect “…how Milo develops”.  The specifics of the verbal stimulus employed including how the User vocalises [specific phrases and intonations] all contribute to a database that informs and effects future interactions.
  2. The User teaches Milo to skim stones over the surface of a river [skewed gender stereotyping is again evident here].
  3. The User choosing to clean Milo’s room: Milo’s recognition of the User’s beneficial intervention and verbal engagement promotes sustained developmental interaction based on [what Peter terms] “deep psychology”.

This “deep psychology” [or what is described in synthaptic terms as "augmentology"] encourages a User’s empathy loadings. This in turn allows such games to shift towards complex experientially-defined engagement. These games surpass the hollow reinforcement of contemporary Social Games such as Farmville: instead, the User “levels up” by knitting fictionalised engagement with personality/identity construction and personalised growth variables. The element of cloud-directed learning [coaching synthetic humans whose social and chronological development depends on "crowdsourced" input] creates enormous opportunities for instruction and feedback via these types of  “Reality Gaming” systems [highlighted here by Seth Priebatsch]:

In 2008, several articles here at Augmentology examined the concepts of Synthetic Presencing and Synthapticism. Both concepts are part of a theoretical framework that attempts to explain developing cultural > augmentological patterns. Presencing embodies a rethink of conventional entertainment modes:

Fiction and non-fiction classifications are designed to map to boundaries of known forms [think: cinema, literature, television and music]. They are so designed to provoke audience responses introspectively and externally. Current synthetic practices are refashioning this entertainment base via the perpetuation of types of unintentional and deliberately augmented recreation. These recreation types are reliant on immediacy of response, play, and Pranksterism. They employ Sandboxing, Gonzoism and spontaneous engagement. This type of entertainment is termed _Presencing_. Presencing involves loose clusters of pursuits that evolve in, or are associated with, synthetic environments. Examples include the Streisand Effect, Supercutting, Flashmobbing, the Slashdot EffectGeohashing, Image macro generation and Internet meme threading…Presencing showcases accidental or reflexive entertainment elements where the fictional/non-fictional divide is erased; associated validity qualifiers are also removed and reconceptualised. Amateur production is equated with valued expression. Presencing also offers adaptive potential for augmented attempts at mediating geophysical constraints.

The complementary concept of Synthapticism involves:

…Crowdsourcers [who] produce clusters of user-mediated data through surges of concentrated attention… Synthetics display attentional surges appropriate to synthaptic shiftings. Synthetic environments operate in accordance with this surge potentiality, with users adopting platforms that offer a contemporary catering for the relevant surge…Synthapticism produces unprecedented connections between synthetic participants. Adjunctive relationships are constructed via Identity interfacing and cushioned by support networks with a comparable emotional weighting to those found in traditional sociocentric structures [acquaintance>friendship>family>community]. Synthaptic communication may appear as fractured or trivial to those not connected synthaptically…”

One contemporary example of a Presencing/Synthaptic Campaign centres on a PR-created character called “The Old Spice Guy” or @OldSpice. This campaign, which makes extended use of social media > network dynamics, initialized with a Synthaptic threading system directly developed from conventional advertising:

Anything is possible when you smell like an Old Spice man and our hero, Isaiah Mustafa, is back to illustrate just a few of the amazing things that an Old Spice man can do. The latest effort is a fully integrated campaign with TV, print and digital executions, targeted at both men and women.

On July 13th 2010 [USA Portland time] the Old Spice brand extended this “personalised” social presence/character via synthetically dependent platforms including Youtube, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. “The Old Spice Guy” character urged cross-platform users to AMA [a popular internet thread on several boards which means "Ask Me Anything"]. The humorous > quirky responses included almost instantaneous @OldSpice micro-video answers to selected users, including meta-referencing by Isaiah Mustafa:

One response that encapsulates the Synthaptic aspects of this campaign began with the user @Jsbeals asking @OldSpice to make a marriage proposal on his behalf:

@Jsbeals later tweeted that his girlfriend had accepted the proposal:

@Jsbeals: @OldSpice SHE SAID YES!!!! #OldSpice @Jsbeals

….and who then changed his Twitter Biography to:

The Old Spice proposal was real. Thank you Old Spice for helping me with this.

A second response set resulted in the sending of roses [referenced in a micro-video response] to Alyssa Milano. A third instance that highlights the episodic > cross-platform > Synthetic Presencing aspect is summed up by Twitter user @rob_sheridan:

Presencing In Action: @OldSpice + Reddit Contributors

Each episodic response illustrates the flattening of traditional entertainment factors [think: @OldSpice responding to "everyday" users as well as more established Hollywood/Internet celebrities]. The campaign realigns passive entertainment construction and distanced absorption via real-time Immediation and Regenerative Comprehension. The Old Spice Guy Synthaptic threading is currently ongoing with replies continually being posted via Youtube.

Part 3: The Crystal Ball

Film Still, The Wizard of Oz.

<continued from Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons>

During the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy visits Professor Marvel and has him read her fortune from his crystal ball. He asks her to close her eyes and takes the opportunity to “read” the belongings in her basket. From these artifacts, Professor Marvel pieces together a story based on his intuition of the meaning of the objects and the context of Dorothy’s visit. Professor Marvel is reading Dorothy’s aura by diving into her metadata and delivers his observations in dramatic and persuasive tones.

Now imagine if Dorothy visited Professor Marvel in the 21st century. His crystal ball is a web-ready mobile device capable of scanning Dorothy’s possessions, clothes, face – maybe even her DNA. This cloud of data is cross-referenced and interlinked with Dorothy’s online profiles and he’s able to quickly conjure up an extremely detailed impression of Dorothy’s past, present and future. At the very least, he’d spot Auntie Em in Dorothy’s Flickr account and come to similar conclusions about Dorothy’s family situation as he does in the film.

As aurec technology improves it will know more and more about us; it will become better at predicting what we do and how we prefer to do it. It will enable us to customize our interactions with everything that surrounds us while also allowing us to share these preferences with others. Search is the essential experience of the web (witness Google). The web asks us “what are you looking for?” every time we use it. To understand the potential of aurec we need to be sensitized to the fact that it will reduce the importance of the question/answer relationship posed by the web and open up an environment of ambient data.

It is my hope that shared aurec experiences will have positive effects on our relationships with other people, allowing us new degrees of emotional intimacy and mutual understanding. Aurec has the potential to change our relations with natural and urban environments by revealing otherwise hidden information on a bespoke basis. This could lead to increased corporate and governmental transparency/accountability as the norm shifts to a sharing paradigm as opposed to hiding data. The more we shift our attention away from gimmicky iphone apps and focus on the broader ontological implications of aura recognition, the more aurec will have the best chances of actualization.

Special thanks to NotThisBody for brilliant insights and reflections while writing this article.

Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons

Images from Initiations-Studies II by Panos Tsagaris
Images from Initiations-Studies II by Panos Tsagaris with Kimberley Norcott

Having summarily rejected the term augmented reality for the reasons listed here, I’ll now propose alternate terminology to describe the phenomenon. The following elements contribute to this formation:

  • The mobile web will enable us to become aware of metadata that was previously obscured in day-to-day life.
  • Many current AR applications pride themselves on exposing indications of present metadata relationships which are not as readily apparent as traditional urban indicators (think: fashion).
  • Contemporary visions of AR as something which will merely allow us to hold up our smart phones and look through an AR “window”.

This process of metadata revealing is termed “aura recognition” (or aurec for short). In a future post I will address what I see as shortcomings of visual interfaces for aurec.

In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin makes the  following observations regarding aura:

If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”

Certainly – since 1935 – these two “social bases” identified by Benjamin have reached their apex in contemporary digital life. Never before have we had as much convenience in bringing things – whether physical objects or information – into our immediate proximity (think: Amazon, Ebay, Google). Neither have we had the experience of such widespread meme and brand propagation in our physical environment (eg shopping malls, international airports, and fast food franchises). Benjamin continues:

Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”

This “sense of the universal equality of things” is the hallmark of the web. All searches are, ostensibly, equal before Google. Yet, among the ruins of this auric destruction, the web is simultaneously imbuing our lives with all kinds of unique and permanent phenomena. These phenomena make up the essence of our digital auras; auras created less by physical objects than by the specificity of context, relationship and juxtaposition. Aura Recognition is the means by which we access these phenomena.

Consider for instance how unique it is to geophysically meet someone who you’ve only previously known online. In the best case scenario, aurec will help us make sense of the emotional significance of digital phenomenon in ways which are meaningful and helpful. Location based services (think: GPS technology) provoke new experiences which are just as dependent on proximity as Benjamin’s proverbial summer afternoon.

<to be continued in _Part 3: The Crystal Ball_>

Part 1: Absurd Assumptions


As many opinion leaders have noted, Augmented Reality (AR) may very well be the next evolutionary step in bringing the metadata of the web into our day-to-day lives. Some suggest that AR technology may even surpass the Web in its sustained impact on culture.

While I whole-heartedly agree with this observation, the use of the term “Augmented Reality” may actually impede any progress forged by these technologies, especially in terms of broad/mainstream acceptance.

The first reason why the actual phrase “Augmented Reality” may impede the cultural uptake of associated technologies is via the use of the word “augmented” – meaning to raise or make larger. AR enthusiasts seem to be comfortable implying that this new technology is somehow the first technology to augment or enhance our reality. This seems absurd, as human societies have a well-documented history of using biochemical technology to augment reality in the tradition of psychotropic plant-aided shamanism. The innovation of written language was a concrete visualization of reality-augmenting metadata. The city may also be considered an extension of reality considering cities are highly constructed frameworks of architecture, roads, sewers, electrical and telephone lines. It seems more relevant to utilize a word that more accurately describes the idiosyncratic peculiarities of a mobile web-ready experience.

My second reason for objecting to the AR term stems from when the word “reality” is employed in relation to what are (in most cases) mobile-web applications. This usage implies that other computer applications are not affecting reality, or at least are not affecting reality sufficiently to be labeled accordingly. This also seems an absurd assumption; the host of software which has prevailed during the history of computing have had an affect on reality too (this, of course, is a total understatement). If it were not for preceding software which has already changed our reality, these so-called “augmented reality” applications would not even exist. Furthermore, this use of “reality” in this context indicates that there is one concrete reality which we are in the process of altering with specific technology. Yet, each of us have our own subjective “reality” experience, with some physicists even postulating theories of a holographic reality. While standards for augmented reality ought to be open to ensure accessibility by any mobile web-enabled device, it is a fallacy to interpret these standards as a consensus on reality itself. This new technology is posed to allow us to customize and tweak our own experience of our reality like never before, as well as the “reality” we share with others.

<to be continued in _Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons_>