Disrupted Space: Digital Placemaking, Augmented Reality and the re-territorialisation of the physical realm
Aug 2017 30

A rant……

One of the most transformative things about augmented reality and mixed reality are the abilities that it gives to add context and content to the world around us, to add layers of story and personal meaning to the hard architectures that often shapes our everyday experience of place. The promise of a technology that brings us back, rather than taking us away, to place and each other.

For as long as we’ve known it, place (the city, the built environment, public infrastructure) is something that has been done to us, not with us. Mediated through semi-permanent hard architectures and public artforms that are chosen by knowledge institutions as ways to often preserve stories of power and ownership over historical narratives. The grafitti makers and flyposterers challenged this notion with non-permanent (and kind of non-linear) artforms, but the democratic potential of space and the built environment has largely been an un-disruptible thing. But, despite its potential flaws, this kind of place had a sharedness, a unified conversation, a collective.

This is what makes the augmentation of space so intriguing. In that it offers a kind of potential for a counter-architecture, one where we are active in the construction and co-creation of space as lived experience. Whilst locative and situated media artists have long been experimenting with these notions, the technologies have remained largely in the hands of specialists and therefore power regimes that want to use screen technologies to alienate us, to atomise us and increasingly see us as a particular kind of individual.

Just like the early internet (the one we currently inhabit btw) democratised information and connection, I believe that the notion of augmented reality offers a similar democratising potential for our notions of place. Imagine a city that you can experience through the eyes of someone else, or through a contextual layer that you choose, or a ‘non-place’ that suddenly is rich in story because of the democratising abilities of digital technologies over physical material ones such as buildings. Imagine being in another place within place. All rather exciting.

But imagine if technology, rather than isolating us and individualising us, could actually bring us back together in the physical world. Sharing a mediation with others perhaps offers a kind of alternative to the notion of individual devices and screens.

But this comes with many caveats. Just like disruptive (virtualised) information and screen technologies impacted on the very essence of how we understand what information and communications is, and brought with it many consequences in digital and real culture (psycho-surveillance, behavioural manipulation, fake news, trolling, trump, brexit, spam, social anxiety) etc. So too will this disruption of hybrid physical space have a massive impact on our spatial culture. What that is precisely remains to be seen, but I sense and feel that it might be quite profound, scary and exciting.

With the coming onslaught of more intelligent forms of immersive technologies and spatial computing,  that understand the world in ways that increasingly resemble our own perceptual abilities, important questions about place are about to come into the fray. Who owns the right to this dataspace when it is increasingly attached to real place? Who owns my body space as I inhabit the public? How might the pervasive and rather imperialist ‘logic of silicon valley’ impact upon the way we inhabit, perceive and live through place? Will everything now just be one massive advertising emotional surveillance canvas as envisioned by science fiction? Will we become even more atomised in our augmented spatial filter bubbles?


Mediating technologies, ones that we live through, are already hugely impacting our everyday experience of place. The current big shift of computing is to physical space (IoT, Smart Cities, Ambient/invisible computing/open data etc etc are all part of this logic of computing that is launching from screens into sensor-things and body-IoTs) and the next wave of tech.

Digital place, or as some now call it ‘Digital Reality’, is arguably the next cultural and disruptive battleground. A number of companies are looking to build out the map that will underpin the control and flows of this space, with technologies such as Google’s VPS, Apple’s ARkit and Microsoft’s Mixed Reality futures that will effect the inside of our homes, our cities, our countryside. Everything.

Here’s a little experiment made with #arkit and unity, playing with some ideas around augmented place and notions of here and now using 6 degrees of freedom augmented tech. There’s enormous potential in this for cities and placemaking: Imagine that we could step into history and be among the past, interacting with it as if it were around us- and even changing its outcome? Or walking into other cities and places? It’s a paradigm shifting for temporal and spatial thinking. Definitely going to develop some concepts with this.

It takes it’s inspiration from a reversal of a Guy Debord quote.

“Underneath the beach, the paving slabs”

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