Augmented Reality Storytelling: The Body and Memory Making

When designing AR experiences and AR stories, we too often forget something very important: the human body.

Augmented content is not two-dimensional or flat; it unfolds in our physical space, in our personal surroundings. We’re walking around it and crouching on the floor, exploring it from different angles and heights. AR stories are about our body in relation to the virtual constructions inhabiting our space as much as they are about the content presented.

Earlier this month, The New York Times debuted their first AR enabled article within their iOS app, a preview piece for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Using an iPhone or iPad, readers can meet Olympic athletes in AR—figure skater Nathan Chen, big air snowboarder Anna Gasser, short track speed skater J.R. Celski, and hockey goalie Alex Rigsby—as if they were paused mid-performance.

John Branch, the author of the NYT AR article, observes how, despite all of the camera angles, watching sports on television creates an experience where you are “passively cocooned on the couch as a mere spectator to miniaturized athletes squeezed through a two-dimensional plane.” The NYT has readers moving and actively engaging with the content in AR, walking around the room where you’re reading the story. Far from being “cocooned on the couch”, you’re crawling on the floor to look speed skater J.R. Celski in the eye. And the 3-D visualizations are not miniaturized like on your TV; they’re sized true to life, and to scale. For example, you’re looking up at figure skater Nathan Chen as he appears 20 inches off the ground in your room, the height he would be mid quadruple jump.

The NYT gets this aspect of AR storytelling right: it’s not just about the athletes’ bodies and their form, it’s also about the way you’re maneuvering your body in conversation with the story and your space as you experience the content.

But there’s something else happening here that we also need to take into account when designing AR experiences.

I was recently chatting with Theresa Poulson about AR storytelling and my new book Augmented Human (Theresa is developing an incubator for creators to advance emerging forms of non-fiction storytelling at Video Lab West). We were discussing the NYT AR experience and Theresa said something I found very intriguing and something that I believe is often overlooked in AR. She mentioned how she walks past the place in her office daily where she encountered the 3D Olympic athlete and she remembers it as though it really happened there in that room, which it in fact did.

As I shared in my AR keynote at FutureX Live 2017 in Atlanta, we’re no longer just designing stories, we’re now designing memories with AR.

In 2016, the first experiences for the Microsoft HoloLens developer edition were introduced, including a game called Fragments, a crime drama that plays out in your physical environment and has you searching for clues in your space to solve the mystery. Kudo Tsunoda, CVP Next Gen Experiences, Windows and Devices Group, Microsoft, said, “Trust me, the first time one of our Fragments characters comes in to your home, sits down on your sofa, and strikes up a conversation with you it is an unforgettable experience.” It really is, and I especially remember the virtual rats.

“Fragments blurs the line between the digital world and the real world more than any other experience we built,” said Tsunoda. “When your living room has been used as the set for a story, it generates memories for you of what digitally happened in your space like it was real. It is an experience that bridges the uncanny valley of your mind and delivers a new form of storytelling like never before.”

There’s a higher level of emotional engagement with experiences like Fragments because the story is unique to your space, the position of your body, and your gaze. There is a direct contextual relationship with content responding to you and your environment. The way you experience Fragments in your home will be different from the way I experience it in my home. Spatial mapping and custom artificial intelligence allow a room’s layout to influence the placement of virtual content in the game, such as a piece of evidence hidden behind your furniture.

The emotions from the game stay with you long after you take the headset off, transforming into memories that are virtually scribed onto your environment, like an augmented palimpsest. And so, the importance of being cognizant of this fact and conscientious as we continue to design and develop AR stories and experiences. The audience is inviting you into their physical and mental homes. It will leave a virtual footprint. With both public and private spaces becoming stages for AR stories, let’s remember: always be generous and kind to your user. It will leave a lasting impression.

Let’s continue the conversation. I’m @ARstories on Twitter.

Augmented Reality: Beyond Conventional Time and Space

There’s a wonderful spirit of invention in the Augmented Reality (AR) community right now — the incredible experimentation and work being done with Apple’s ARkit is tremendously exciting. It’s truly thrilling to see AR accelerate both creatively and technically. Keep the demos coming!

Working with AR for 12 years now, it’s been amazing to experience AR’s evolution (read all about it and where things are headed in Augmented Human). It’s also been fun digging back into the archives recently to revisit some of my early AR prototypes from 2005 and later (especially the pre-iPhone projects and thinking about ARkit applications today).

Zach Lieberman’s ARkit experiments and process have been particularly inspiring to watch. Lieberman’s AR camera app test (video below) brought to mind artist David Hockney’s stunning and innovative photocollages — referred to as ‘joiners’ — from the 1980’s. Hockney’s joiners were a strong influence in my early AR prototypes. I was dazzled by Hockney’s approach to representing time and space, amplifying the abstraction and dynamism of Cubism, and building on the work of artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.


Image: David Hockney, The Skater, 1984, photographic collage.

Hockney said of his photocollages, “I realized that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see, which is to say, not all-at-once but rather in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world”. Hockney presented a new way of seeing via the camera, one that mirrored the way we see in reality: through multiple glimpses that we piece together. AR, too, has the potential to rethink and present a new way of seeing and interaction with our world.


Image: David Hockney, Merced River, Yosemite Valley, Sept. 1982, photographic collage.

My AR Joiners series (2008-2009) paid homage to Hockney’s work. The AR Joiners widened Hockney’s concepts to use 2D video clips in AR with individual paper AR markers overlapping to create one larger AR collaged scene. The short video clips that composed the AR Joiners were each recorded over a series of separate moments (as opposed to one long video take that was cut into multiple fragments running on the same timeline). This was a conscious design choice: the AR Joiners were about the body moving in time, akin to Hockney’s photocollage process, with distinct moments and views, accumulating in a total memory of the space and experience across time. (Read more about the AR Joiners in a paper I presented at ISMAR 2009, Augmented Reality (AR) Joiners, A Novel Expanded Cinematic Form  published by IEEE.)

Hockney’s joiners, the AR Joiners, and the experiments we’re seeing today with ARkit  create new visual conventions beyond traditional time and space, all working toward building a novel language of AR. Another contemporary example is floatO, a photography iOS app that uses ARkit by artist Dan Monaghan.

In Architectures of the Senses: Neo-baroque Entertainment Spectacles (2003), Angela Ndalianis writes,

“The baroque’s difference from classical systems lies in the refusal to respect the limits of the frame. Instead, it intends to invade spaces in every direction, to perforate it, to become as one with all its possibilities.”

Ndalianis’s description of the baroque aligns quite nicely with Hockney’s joiners, the AR Joiners, and even Lieberman’s and Monaghan’s ARkit explorations; each of these works demonstrates ways of moving beyond the limits of the single photographic frame, expanding time in multiple directions, and puncturing conventional space.

But perforating the boundaries of reality doesn’t stop here: to truly grow the possibilities in AR, we will need to move past strictly vision-based experiments and engage the entire human sensorium with auditory, haptic, gustatory, olfactory, and visual experiences (in Augmented Human, there is a chapter dedicated to each of the senses and the opportunities with AR).

This is truly just the beginning of the dynamic, shape-shifting, and wonder-inducing new reality that is to come. I can’t wait to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste what’s next.

Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter: I’m @ARstories.

Augmented Human: How Technology is Shaping the New Reality is available from:

Amazon (USA)
Amazon (Canada)
Amazon (UK)
Indigo (Canada)
Barnes and Noble (USA)
Book Depository (Worldwide)
Google Play

The Future of AR is… Sophisticated and Beautiful

This week, Wareable invited me to contribute to their Augmented Reality (AR) week feature. Here’s my vision for the future of AR:

“My prediction takes the form of my hopes and wishes for AR, and at its core what AR as an experience and a technology needs to be and do to truly advance.

The future of AR is sophisticated and beautiful. It enhances and is in sync with the physical world; it does not replace or supplant it. It does not overload; it aids and delights with elegance. It creates goodness, uplifting and enriching our lives. It ignites and invites curiosity and creativity. This is what we must strive for. May these new realities be deeply fulfilling and greatly benefit humanity.”

Thank you Wareable for including me and to each of the contributors for their thoughtful predictions. Read the full article here.

Last week, The Toronto Star interviewed me about the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) AR exhibit “Reblink.” I shared my thoughts on the importance of artists working with AR (which I go into more depth on in my book Augmented Human):

“Artists have the unique ability to take the ordinary and transform it into something extraordinary, and to show us the world in a completely new way. Augmented Reality does too. So AR and artists are a perfect match,” said Helen Papagiannis, an AR expert and author of Augmented Human: How Technology is Shaping the New Reality. “What’s next is an exploration of AR storytelling beyond just the visual: audio, touch, smell and taste.”

I can’t wait for you to read Augmented Human, in print September 2017. Here’s a post on why I wrote the book and who it’s for, with excerpts from the Preface.


Purchase Augmented Human from:
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Amazon (Canada)
Amazon (UK)
Indigo (Canada)
Barnes and Noble (USA)
Book Depository (Worldwide)

Here’s Why I Wrote Augmented Human

Excerpts from Augmented Human: How Technology Is Shaping the New Reality:

Why I Wrote This Book

Twelve years ago, I caught my first glimpse of the power of Augmented Reality (AR) as a new communication medium. It was pure magic: a virtual 3-D cube appeared in my physical surroundings and I was awestruck. The augmented cube demo wasn’t interactive at the time (it did nothing else other than appear), however, it ignited my imagination for how AR could grow and evolve. At that moment, I dedicated my creative work, research, and public speaking to the new experiences AR made possible.

I wrote this book because I began to witness a much needed shift from a focus on the technology alone to a push toward creating compelling content and meaningful experiences in AR. This book is about exploring those big ideas and the extraordinary new reality AR affords. Now is the time to dream, design, and build our wondrous future.

As AR advances, we must ask: How can we design AR experiences to enhance and make a user’s life easier and better? MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte said, “Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living.” AR is no longer just about the technology, it’s about living in the real world, and creating magical and meaningful experiences that are human-centred. This book is about how AR will enrich our daily lives and extend humanity in unprecedented ways.

Who Should Read This Book

It’s not too often an entire new medium emerges. You should read this book if you’re a maker, a doer, and an explorer who is excited by creating a path where there is no trail, and want to contribute to this rapidly growing industry. You should also read this book as an informed consumer for a peek at the new experiences that will change the way we live, work, and play.

You are a designer, a developer, an entrepreneur, a student, an educator, a business leader, an artist, and a technology enthusiast curious about and excited by the possibilities AR presents. You are committed to designing and supporting AR experiences for the deepest of human values to have a profound impact on bettering humanity.


Purchase Augmented Human from:
Amazon (USA)
Amazon (Canada)
Amazon (UK)
Indigo (Canada)
Barnes and Noble (USA)
Book Depository (Worldwide)
Google Play

Augmenting the human experience: AR, wearable tech, and the IoT

As augmented reality technologies emerge, we must place the focus on serving human needs.

Augmented reality (AR), wearable technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all really about human augmentation. They are coming together to create a new reality that will forever change the way we experience the world. As these technologies emerge, we must place the focus on serving human needs.

The Internet of Things and Humans

Tim O’Reilly suggested the word “Humans” be appended to the term IoT. “This is a powerful way to think about the Internet of Things because it focuses the mind on the human experience of it, not just the things themselves,” wrote O’Reilly. “My point is that when you think about the Internet of Things, you should be thinking about the complex system of interaction between humans and things, and asking yourself how sensors, cloud intelligence, and actuators (which may be other humans for now) make it possible to do things differently.”

I share O’Reilly’s vision for the IoTH and propose we extend this perspective and apply it to the new AR that is emerging: let’s take the focus away from the technology and instead emphasize the human experience.

The definition of AR we have come to understand is a digital layer of information (including images, text, video, and 3D animations) viewed on top of the physical world through a smartphone, tablet, or eyewear. This definition of AR is expanding to include things like wearable technology, sensors, and artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret your surroundings and deliver a contextual experience that is meaningful and unique to you. It’s about a new sensory awareness, deeper intelligence, and heightened interaction with our world and each other.

Seeing the world in new ways

We are seeing AR pop up in all facets of life, from health, gaming, communication, and travel. Most AR applications today can be found in your pocket on mobile devices, enabling you to explore the physical world around you, untethered from your desktop computer. One of the earliest applications of AR being used to deliver a helpful experience was Word Lens. The application allows you to point your smartphone at printed text in a foreign language, including a road sign or a menu, and translate it on the fly into the language of your choice. Suddenly, you are more deeply immersed and engaged with your surroundings via a newfound contextual understanding assisted by technology.

Word Lens solves a human need. What if this same concept of using technology to augment your experience was extended to include other types of sensors, data, and networks? We are beginning to see examples of this, particularly in health care and wearable tech, with a higher goal of applying technology to help people live better lives. A perfect example of thought leaders exploring this new frontier is Rajiv Mongia, director of the Intel RealSense Interaction Design Group. Mongia and his team have developed a wearable prototype to help people with low or no vision gain a better sense of their surroundings. Combining a camera, computer vision, and sensors worn on the human body, the prototype is able to “see” objects within a few yards of you and tell you approximately where an object is located: high, low, left, or right, and whether the object is moving away or getting closer.

This is all communicated to you through vibration motors embedded into the wearable. The tactile feedback you experience is comparable to the vibration mode on your mobile phone, with the intensity corresponding to how close an object is to you. For example, if a wall or person is near you, the vibration is stronger, and if it’s farther away, it’s less intense. Mongia said that people who’ve tried the prototype say it has promise, that it augments their senses and helps them to “feel” the environment around them.

Advancing augmented reality for humanity

The Intel prototype is an example of empowering humans through technology. In developing the wearable system Mongia asked, “If we can bring vision to PCs and tablets, why not use that same technology to help people see?” This question exemplifies the spirit of the Internet of Things and Humans by giving people greater access to computer intelligence and emphasizing the human experience.

This greater goal will require seeing beyond just the technology and looking at systems of interaction to better enable and serve human needs. Tim O’Reilly has described Uber as an early IoT company. “Most people would say it is not; it’s just a pair of smartphone apps connecting a passenger and driver. But imagine for a moment the consumer end of the Uber app as it is today, and on the other end, a self-driving car. You would immediately see that as IoT.” Uber is a company that is built around location awareness. O’Reilly explained, “An Uber driver is an augmented taxi driver, with real-time location awareness. An Uber passenger is an augmented passenger, who knows when the cab will show up.”

While Uber strives to provide their users with an experience of convenience and visibility, there are other smartphone applications available today that use the reach of mobile and the power of social networking to truly help people. Be My Eyes, for example, is a mobile app that connects a person who is visually impaired with a sighted person to provide assistance. Using a live video connection, a sighted helper is able to see and describe vocally what a visually impaired person is facing. Since January 2015, more than 113,000 volunteers have signed up to help close to 10,000 visually impaired people around the world in 80 languages.

Be My Eyes is an early AR application in the same way O’Reilly described Uber as an early IoT company. Similar to Uber being more likely identified as IoT if a self-driving car was used, Be My Eyes would more likely be considered AR if a computer was using AI to identify what you were looking at. Apps like Be My Eyes are significant because they point the way to a new altruistic augmentation of reality building on the growth of the sharing economy, the power of our devices, and humans working together with computers to advance AR for humanity.

Read “Augmented Human: How Technology is Shaping the New Reality.”

The state of Augmented Reality

A look at AR today and how we need to design it for tomorrow.

Unlike virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) provides a gateway to a new dimension without the need to leave our physical world behind. We still see the real world around us in AR, whereas in VR, the real world is completely blocked out and replaced by a new world that immerses the user in a computer generated environment.

AR Today

The most common definition of AR to date is a digital overlay on top of the real world, consisting of computer graphics, text, video, and audio, which is interactive in real time. This is experienced through a smartphone, tablet, computer, or AR eyewear equipped with software and a camera. Examples of AR today include the translation of signs or menus into the language of your choice, pointing at and identifying stars and planets in the night sky, and delving deeper into a museum exhibit with an interactive AR guide. AR presents the opportunity to better understand and experience our world in unprecedented ways.

AR is rapidly gaining momentum (and extreme amounts of funding) with great advances and opportunities in science, design, and business. It is not often that a whole new communications medium is introduced to the world. AR will have a profound effect on the way we live, work, and play. Now is the time to imagine, design, and build our virtual future.

Working with AR for a decade as a Ph.D. researcher, designer, and technology evangelist, I’ve watched AR evolve in regard to both technology (software and hardware) and experience design. An AR experience is commonly triggered by tracking something in the physical environment that activates the AR content. Images, GPS locations, and the human body and face are all things that can be tracked to initiate an AR experience, with more complex things like emotion and voice expanding this list. We are seeing a rise in AR hardware, with a particular emphasis on digital eyewear that includes gesture interaction from companies like Magic Leap and Microsoft with the recently announced HoloLens headset.

Designing AR for tomorrow

We are at a moment where we are also seeing a shift from AR as a layer on top of reality to a more immersive contextual experience that combines things like wearable computing, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). We are moving beyond an experience of holding up our smartphones and seeing three-dimensional animations like dinosaurs appear to examples of assistive technology that help the blind to see and navigate their surroundings. AR is life changing, and there is extreme potential here to design experiences that surpass gimmickry and have a positive effect on humanity.

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte said, “Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living.” AR, too, is no longer about technology; it’s about defining how we want to live in the real world with this new technology and how we will design experiences that are meaningful and help advance humanity. There is an immediate need for storytellers and designers of all types to aid in defining AR’s trajectory. The technology exists, now it’s about authoring compelling content and applying meaningful experiences in this new medium.

Keeping it human-centered

For me, it’s about maintaining our humanness in a sea of limitless options within this new medium. We must think critically about how we will place human experience at the center. It’s not about being lost in our devices; it’s about technology receding into the background so that we can engage in human moments.

An article in Forbes by John Hagel and John Seely Brown looked at how IoT can help to enhance human relationships. Hagel and Brown described a scenario (that can be powered with current technology) of “data-augmented human assistance,” where a primary care physician wearing digital eyewear interacts with a patient to listen attentively and maintain eye contact while accessing and documenting relevant data. With the process of data capture and information transfer offloaded into the background, such devices can be applied to improve human relationships. “Practitioners can use technology to get technology out of the way — to move data and information flows to the side and enable better human interaction,” wrote Hagel and Brown, noting how such examples highlight a paradox that is inherent in the IoT: “although technology aims to weave data streams without human intervention, its deeper value comes from connecting people.”

This new wave of AR that combines IoT, big data, and wearable computing also has an incredible opportunity to connect people and create meaningful experiences, whether it’s across distances or being face to face with someone. The future of these new experiences is for us to imagine and build. Reality will be augmented in never-before-seen ways. What do you want it to look like and what role will you play in defining it?