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]

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_>


…(a Tojolabal, two and a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call “cork”, but he has told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to Margaritas to pick up passengers…The plane makes a pass over Pedrito’s hut, and he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves in the direction of its base. Pedrito says “There now” and starts playing once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great detail. “It’s a stick,” I say. “It is,” the Sea says.

- A story from Subcommandante Marcos retold by Ricardo Dominguez

One of my recent attempts at exploring and establishing liberating spaces between realities is a series of performances called technésexual. In technésexual, myself and Elle Mehrmand (my partner/collaborator) perform erotic acts simultaneously in a geophysical space and virtually in Second Life. Using electrocardiogram heart monitor chest straps, Lilypad temperature sensors and Arduino/Freeduinos, we capture heart rate and body temperature data to transmitt to our avatars in Second Life. These transmissions act to bridge the physical space and the virtual environment via the use of audio. This type of linking is often experienced when having a conversation that involves different, yet connected, physical locations. Technésexual provokes questions concerning the representation of sexualities that lie outside restrictive LGBT/homo/hetero categories: such categories are rooted in binary gender assumptions. The mixing of realities in this project are a way of queering new media which parallels our own experiences of mixing genders and sexualities.

Virtual/Synthetic worlds like Second Life facilitate the development of new identities which allow for (as yet) unimagined relations and relationships. Technésexual looks closely at these new relationships and the potential they embody. There is a flipside to the potentialities inherent in the subversive use of Second Life, one that acknowledges that Linden Labs – the creators of Second Life – are attempting to create a walled garden and permanently lock in users. Similarly, the university is beginning to reveal itself as a self-perpetuating obsolescent institution as sites like aaaaarg.org provide instantly searchable digital texts. Any exclusive expertise involved in pinpointing particular topics becomes obsolete when the process is as simple as using a “find” command. If we can begin to understand the university as “managed death[, ] a machine for administering death, for the proliferation of technologies of death”, the need to remove or modify such institutions becomes urgent.

In a recent panel conversation concerning Alex Rivera (the director of Sleep Dealer), Cauleen Smith noted how science fiction is a genre that promotes critique of extant systems of oppression (including class, race and gender).

Mixed and Augmented Reality could likewise be employed subversively to modify Capitalism through the infiltration of entertainment – this would, in turn, present deep critiques of extant systems of power. In Protocol, Alexander Galloway discusses the need for protocological resistance under global Capitalism, where practical implementations are shown in the occupations of universities and virtual worlds. Second Life creates a desire for a free metaverse. Free Software (such as Open Sim) begins to offer a space beyond Second Life and its tightly controlled reality.

Aimee Mullins proposed in a recent article that:

…the generation of children growing up today has a distinct advantage in this realm of identity, thanks to their daily interaction with the internet and video games. It’s commonplace for them to create avatars and parallel representations of themselves, and they see their ability to change, transform, and augment those bodies to best suit their surroundings as beneficial.”

I would, however, suggest caution rather than pure optimism regarding choices available in identity creation: many of these selections can just as easily reinforce forces of social control as offer an alternatives to them. There is no inherent freedom implied in Reality shifting. In her recent book Simulation and its Discontents, Sherry Turkle describes a 13 year old girl who informed her interacting within SimCity taught her that “raising taxes leads to riots”. What lesson did the girl learn – how to be a better ruler or how to take part in a riot? It isn’t clear. What is clear are the reality cracks opening up in front of us every day. As we proceed to navigate (within) these cracks, we must be prepared to imagine, create and bridge these new realities.

Becoming Dragon

I am becoming something else. In this moment, this being-in-transition, I am willfully stepping into the unknown. I am between realities. I can only imagine what I want to become, and then choose to become that new thing, but it is radically ungraspable, inconceivable. I can never know the reality of what I am choosing to become, desiring to become. My decision to transform can never be the right one, because it is always based on an illusion, a fantasy, a false conception with only a few points of data, not the rich details of an embodied life. As the transformation unfolds, those unknown events begin to occur, like seeing my breasts in the mirror for the first time after shaving my chest closely, feeling the movement in my orgasm change into something new or just walking down the street for a moment as a girl, unnoticed and not needing any special attention. My decision to become something else is always a decision to become mythopoetic, because the reality of the new state is always unknown, imaginary, a construct, a fantasy. Yet I don’t seek to decry this radical state of uncertainty but to embrace it. The very moments of everyday perception are also simply intersections of a real materiality with my symbolic and imaginary processing engines making sense of them, down to the way that I understand what pleasure is and what pain is and when the two become too close so as to be confused. And a choice to not transform is of course still a choice to transform into a different state, as our bodies are all in permanent transition, aging, training, consuming, producing, perceiving, creating new folds in our craniums.

Becoming Dragon Day 6

Through this process, I am also becoming an artist. Yet this is simply another fantasy which I use to structure my desires and find direction. Artist, porn star, student, professor, father, mother, husband, wife, lover, child, priest, these are all simply performances of being, yet their being a performance makes them no less real, nor more real, just another fold in the swirling interplay, the kaleidoscope of realities that is our being.

A mixed reality performance using an online 3D virtual world simply highlights the fantasy nature of our everyday interactions, of the physical world, by referring back to the physical, stirring up our memories and conceptions of embodiment. A mixed reality performance is a misnomer, as every step of our waking lives is a mix of realities, our self-perceptions, muscle memory, proprioceptions, others’ perceptions of us, our perceptions of their perceptions of us as they look at us, or don’t, our understanding that we are walking, taking on a step, on a sidewalk, by a building. A mixed reality performance simply highlights this fact, or this fiction, and allows one to see and begin to question the mythopoetic structure of reality. While performance sought to get closer to the real, to escape mediation, I embrace the pleasure of bits projected on my skin and the flickering of digital lights in my eyes, of the simulacrum of my own fantasy which creates that same fantasy. The mixture of real and imaginary is more real for being so.

While one can draw one’s fantasy, or write it out in words, 3D virtual worlds bring us one step closer to seeing in front of our eyes the fantasy films which play behind our eyes, yet there are many more steps to bring us closer to dreams. In my dreams I smell, I feel my body in action, I have visceral emotions, yet software such as Second Life is far from emulating such unreal realities. Still, we can make steps closer to dreams, with motion capture, head mounted displays, tactile interfaces, wish pressure interfaces. I wish for another reality, the electricity on my skin changes, transferring the new desired location to the system, and the pressure interface responds, as my chair morphs from a car seat to a comfy recliner in my skybox…loading world…arriving.

I am transreal. Look at me. When you do, a million iridescent scales across my dragon hide flick, move and align to create a multiplicity of perceptions, transversal illusions and realities cutting through each other, intersecting, dancing. Look at me. You see a shimmering of my fantasies and yours, a convergence of your minute sensory events, your imaginary constructs and my desires. Look at me. The mythopoetic elements of your reality and mine come into contact, unwind and become a recombinant event of male and female and something else, something more, for just an instant. Perhaps after that initial instant, one of your myths takes over your perception and you decide that you understand, but before that, I instill confusion and doubt. I can see it on your face.

I am becoming mythopoetic, a shapeshifting creature of legend, a dragon. Standing here, on the border, the sunlight through the clouds defeating the fence, I am transreal, between realities, moving through layers of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, simultaneously quivering, swapping out and swapping back in, too fast to find the border between them. I am existing between my fantasies and desires, which are driving the changing form of my body, and the moment of perception in which you see me and call me maam, sir, dude, miss, or avoid choosing a category. Speaking, being with different people throughout the day, my body and name changes, my realness or unrealness oscillates. You see me standing here, but really, you see my avatar, my body, which is under construction. We bring our illusions together. You see soft skin. I see the pills and the bloody razor that made it soft, making me feel happier, more feminine. You see scales, I see textured prims and their glow values.

A dark moment in the street at night, your illusions of masculinity swirl up against the confusion I install in you, and you attack. My reality becomes a blur, a flurry of motion, and a sharp chemical emotional reaction, as I strike back with pressurized chemical weapons. Yet even in that moment, I am transreal, between my reality and yours, only finding a hard fissure between the two.
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In bed with my lover, we are transreal, deep in our illusions of each other, feeling our very real emotions for each other, between bodies, looking into her eyes, slipping out of myself and my concerns and out into the bright nebula of pleasure…