Many approaches to developing cities as automated environments, whether this be for robotics, for augmented reality or ubiquitous computing tend to take as their premise the addition of items, generally computing devices, to the environment. Thus, for example, RFID chips can be embedded in buildings and objects which could (and indeed in some cases, already do) communicate with each other and with mobile devices to form networks to enable all kinds of location-based services, mobile commerce and of course, surveillance.
But for robots in the city, such a complex network of communication is not strictly necessary. Cities already contain many relatively stable points by which such artificial entities can orient themselves, however not all of them are obvious. One recent Japanese paper, mentioned in Boing Boing, advocates the use of manhole covers, which tend to be static, metallic, quite distinctive and relatively long-lasting – all useful qualities in establishing location. The shape of manhole covers could be recorded and used as location-finding data with no need for embedded chips and the like.
It isn’t mentioned in the article, but I wonder whether such data could also be used for other inhabitants of the city with limited sensory capabilities: impaired humans? Could one equip people with devices that read the same data and use this to help sensorially-impaired people to navigate the city more effectively? On the less positive side, I also wonder whether such data would prove to be highly desirable information for use in urban warfare…
BoingBoing draws my attention to a video produced by London firm, Berg, with the London office of Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu. Cory Doctorow, who posted this one, and who I usually find to be bang on the money, comments that it presents an imagination of ‘Augmented Reality’ that isn’t ‘an advertising hell’. That may be true, but it’s hardly an inspiring vision of the future of such a potentially empowering technology. For a start, most of what is shown isn’t really ‘AR’ at all, just ways of displaying social media on different kinds of surfaces so you can’t escape from it – and in fact, Berg/Dentsu do term it ‘incidental media’. To me, AR, if it is to be anything useful at all, means a heightened sensory environment, and one that should start with providing ways for those already disadvantaged to experience the city. Bill Mitchell called the last book of his City of Bits trilogy, Me++, and AR should really create a City++. The dreary corporate Berg/Dentsu future isn’t anyway near this, in fact it’s a City–, it’s reality reduced to endless news and personal updates. If it’s not hell, it’s more like a meaningless limbo… I know that many visions of the future go way over the top, but this is so timid and unimaginative, it just makes the future look boring.
There are some reports circulating around the web that researchers from the Technical University of Ilmenau, Germany, have invented an algorithm for unobtrusively erasing objects from live digital surveillance camera footage. Now the possibility of post-hoc manipulation of video has long been known, but the idea that live images could be altered is something new. A device that could trigger such an erasure drove the plot of the superb surveillance technothriller, Whole Wide World, written by Scottish author, Paul McAuley back in 2001, but almost ten years later, reality appears to have caught up with a piece of near-future SF that already felt perilously close.
According to Ray Kurzweil’s blog, the software is being demonstrated as I write at the Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) in Seoul, although the researchers appear to refer to their invention as ‘diminished reality’. There are links to video on the invention from both there and the university press release (above). The software appears to work by recognised shapes and removing them from the video as the feed comes in and before it reaches any display.
However, neither Kurzweil nor any of the other commenters on this story (e.g. BoingBoing) seem to get the potential seriousness of this development, both for resistance to surveillance and for the credibility of video surveillance: it could be a fantastic tool for privacy, or an equally fantastic tool for social and political control. It’s one thing to be able to manipulate the past (to do what Stalin did to his oppenents and airbrush them out of history -see David King’s excellent book, The Commissar Vanishes), it’s yet another thing to be unsure whether what one is watching on TV or on YouTube is ‘real’ or ‘fake’ or some combination, but it is another thing entirely to be unsure whether the supposedly live images from a surveillance camera are actually real or not…
There’s an amusing article with a serious point to it by the ever-acerbic Charlie Brooker on The Guardian website, on the potential social transformations of so-called ‘augmented reality’ technologies. The idea that ‘augmented reality’ inevitably will diminish or dehumanise as much as it adds or extends is one that has been made many times before, but usually in regard to the ‘subject’, i.e: the person experiencing the augmented reality. What Brooker’s satirical article is saying is that the humanity that is potenitally diminished in these systems is that of ‘others’ who may be effectively hidden by the information that the person using AR desires, and perhaps even deliberately so. I can see this. I think it’s actually a real possibility and the humour of Brooker’s approach shoudn’t disguise the fact that he’s an incredibly perceptive commentator.