March 8, 2019
SXSW 2019

SXSW: Augmented Reality and the Importance of Context

How important is context in augmented reality?

Mandy Mandelstein of Modular(a) spoke at SXSW this morning about the impact of context and emerging technologies in augmented reality, particularly as a storytelling method.

Mandelstein calls herself a "narrative technologist" and explained both the tech side and the narrative potential of AR. She referred to AR as "well-crafted illusions" and a method of blending layers of the real and digital. There are potentially infinite virtual layers that can be implemented into the physical world. AR has been a growing medium for several years now, and many film festivals like SXSW are implementing augmented reality and virtual reality components to their programming.

"What are the limitations, and how can I design around them?" she posed as an early question.

A few of the limitations within AR include permanence (how long can an AR experience exist and learn from its location), occlusion (can virtual content move behind real-world objects), and multi-user sync (how can you get two virtual worlds to line up). Mandelstein said technology is rapidly changing to solve these issues.

"What are the limitations, and how can I design around them?"

Mandelstein also spoke briefly about the methods of experiencing AR. Maybe you're independently wealthy and can try the new Magic Leap HoloLens 2, but chances are you're more likely to be using a mobile AR app. Beacon-based technology can also be used to direct users through an experience.

One of her biggest points was about "place as platform" and how this new dimension of storytelling should consider context during development She compared AR's potential to the Internet -- when browsing, you don't want all of the Internet at once, just the pages that are relevant to you in a particular moment.

So within AR creation, consider time of day, sound, light, smells, weather, people, and architecture as you're crafting a story or experience within a space. Does the light change? Can you provide options for different seasons? Will elements of the environment shift throughout time?

Mandelstein used her work with "Overheard," a narrative experience in the Minneapolis Institute of Art which took users through overheard conversations, as an example of location-based storytelling. An app recognized users' locations and led them down conversation paths, into areas of the museum they might not have otherwise visited. Anchor artwork (which would not move within the museum) acted as stopping points. The actors for the experience recorded multiple lines that could be changed according to season.

In large, public spaces like museums, virtual reality is like underutilized acreage. If the institution doesn't develop an AR/VR experience of its own, chances are that someone else might. Just look at MoMAR, a group that created an unauthorized AR experience within the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

Another central issue Mandelstein pointed out was privacy. While designers of apps and experiences might want data as a return on investment, Mandelstein as a creator knows that it's asking a lot of a user to demand that information. While AR often needs exact location information to place a user within an experience, is it just as easy for that person to step out of it? Mandelstein pointed to a 2018 New York Times article, "Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret," as proof of how scary users might find these privacy breaches.

Are you developing your own AR or VR ideas?

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.     

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