Here is a world suffocated by information. Interactive videos, images and texts appear and disappear continuously. They give information (“Get off here”), updates on loyalty points at the supermarket (given either by a woman if you're a man, or by a man if you're a woman), and remind you to get to work on time.
This is a world seen through an augmented-reality viewer. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) used the term hyperreality to describe a “simulated” version of reality that seduces people away from reality. The designer, architect and film maker Keiichi Matsuda has explored augmented reality in his six-minute futuristic video Hyper-Reality, presented recently at the Milan Polytechnic by Meet the Media Guru, an agency that encourages innovative digital culture. The presentation was held during the Mi/Arch architecture festival promoted by the Polytechnic. The video was shot in Medellín, Colombia, and crowd-funded through a campaign on the Kickstarter platform. It shows a brief fragment in the day of a woman, whose real actions are submerged by layers of virtual images in a crescendoing overload of information and anxiety. In a grotesque epilogue, even the entrance to a church is barred by menus in need of confirmation in order for her to specify exactly what she wants to do there. By drawing the sign of the cross, different options appear such as “confess your sins” and “attend mass”.
In the words of Matsuda, the question the video aims to raise is, “Is this really the world we want?” If not, what possibilities do we have to construct a different scenario? We met with the film maker in Milan during the presentation, and this is what he told us: “The departure point is the impact that technology has on the way we conceive and design space. It no longer makes sense to say ‘Form follows function’ like Mies van der Rohe proclaimed. A smart phone contains myriad functions, and it is up to the user to decide which ones to activate, regardless of the real surroundings. We can take part in meetings on the other side of the planet as we sit on a park bench. The spaces organised around a specific function are disappearing, so we need to think of flexible surroundings that can be used for different activities. We architects often have the tendency to ignore the presence and use of this technology in the design phase. Slightly abstractly, we imagine the behaviour of the people who will use the buildings we design. However, this technology has a great impact on how people perceive and use those spaces.”
Matsuda’s plans include two more short films in the Hyper-Reality series, in which he will explore the role of advertising and brand promotion in a setting where virtual and real elements stand in increasing continuity with each other. From a technological point of view, the distinction is clear: virtual-reality content envelops the user in a world of computer-generated images, while augmented-reality content layers those images over the actual, physical surroundings. Matsuda considers both to be opportunities with which to rethink the design of space. Two types of architecture could be created: a physical one that creates material space, and a virtual one, where spaces can be reconfigured based on our needs – for work or entertainment. The devices that will give us access to this combined content will probably not be the ones that we see today such as the computer glasses Google Glass that never went into production, or the HoloLens goggles by Microsoft, which drop holograms into your field of vision. It is likely that they will be much lighter, like contact lenses or simple spectacles.
“Technology will become almost invisible. The layer of images will be able to be anywhere; space itself will become a means of communication,” says Matsuda. “To design these spaces, the techniques of game design and film making will be used. A person designing a video game has in mind his player, and how his player will perceive the settings and images created. I believe that architects should think more along these lines.”
Many people are at work on the technical aspects, trying to build the most advanced systems. Few, however, are asking themselves why we are doing so and what consequences it will have on real life. “I don’t have the answers, but I do think I have arrived at a point where I can ask the right questions,” Matsuda continues. “If this is not the future we want, we need to do something about it. It is not enough to just stand by waiting for the next smart phone to come out.” This is a palpable message in Hyper-Reality, where the protagonist's daily life is all but desirable.
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