A Little Window to History
BlueAnt Digital Intelligence and KHOJ International Artist Association recently came together to create a project called 1 Square Augmented Mile (1SAM) in Khirkee, Delhi. A cross between a site-specific art treasure trove, virtual reality and community based social network, 1SAM caught our attention for the way in which it melded art and technology, making augmented reality accessible to anyone with a smartphone and 3G connection. We got Head Ant Arjun Jassal to tell us about the project and the way in which he went about making an idea a virtual possibility.
By Arjun Jassal
I’ve always been fascinated by virtual worlds; the creation of social spaces which don’t have the constraints of physicality or physics. But VWs (not Volkswagen) have inherent problems: they aren’t very useful, they don’t compliment the ‘real world’ and you need solid hardware to experience them. Yet year after year, some firm or the other announces more virtual experiences. The concept just refuses to die out. Why?
I have no definitive answer, but I’ll go back to physicality and physics. Virtual Worlds let you add your thoughts, opinions in the form of 3D objects, animations, video, audio, text and share all of that in 3D dimensional space. It’s like having your own little fief, where everything is about you; your very own corner of the interwebs.
But what if you could do all of that without building a virtual world or dealing with all their real-world constraints? What if we could use the world we already have?
That’s when I hit upon ‘augmented reality’, a mashing up of the real with the virtual. The layering of digital information (from 3D objects to text) over what you see in the real world.
So far, so good. But how do you apply this fancy sounding ‘augmented reality’ (AR)?
For a while now, inspired by the web, I’ve been looking at all sorts of AR solutions. From watches that show up your hands but aren’t real (Tissot) to graphic novels with hidden content (SVK). While they’re nice and fancy, I wanted something Indian. Something that could introduce AR, involve a community, and be useful in some way.
It was during the last leg of April that I approached Khoj, an artists’ association that is based out of Khirkee Village in Delhi. While I was brimming with ideas, BlueAnt, the little company that I run, didn’t have the funding or the content to build an AR experience. After a few discussions and many cups of tea, Khoj and I came up with the idea of creating 1SAM or the 1 Square Augmented Mile project.
The concept was simple; over the years Khoj has had various contemporary art residencies, experiments and workshops all around the Khirkee Village. They’ve ranged from paintings and installations to live performances. Each of these initiatives has been carefully documented, with images, project reports and some videos. And while these records remain intact, the art work over time, has been replaced, removed or remade when a particular project was finished.
When I started walking around Khirkee, people at Khoj would tell me where something was installed or described what it looked like. The documented images provided some insight. But there was no way to connect where (the space where something was installed or an image was taken) to what (the installation or the image). I wanted to see those installations, the exhibitions and exhibits that had been removed years earlier. I needed a little window into the past.
But that’s not all. At the expense of sounding all gushing-at-the-mouth-poster-child-of-liberalization-sorts, Khirkee is an amazing place. It’s an ‘urban village’, which means that there are NO roads and buildings appear to be scarcely more stable than matchbox models. Yet it is right next door to one of Delhi’s most opulent malls (there are more than one). Plus the demographic of the area is changing; while some spaces are still occupied by migrant labour, Khirkee is being taken over by students, especially those from various African countries.
And as I saw this all, I wondered, what if I could catch the memories of every person passing through this rapidly urbanising while simultaneously deteriorating space? What if these memories could be shared? Or when I looked at the square mile, it would stare back at me with a host of mirrors, some held by me, some by others.
A screen grab from 1SAM in action
This is how 1SAM began.
Blue skies and ‘mind storms’ apart, building AR isn’t as easy as it appears. From the very start, you have two options: build everything from scratch or build on various AR browsers. Apart from the time and funding constraints, building AR from scratch requires understanding all underlying systems, building for the browser, on the other hand, required just looking under the hood of the browser. The closest I’ve come to an analogy, is that the former is like building your very own internet protocol and latter is like building a website.
Arun, who does R&D at BlueAnt, and I chose website. We selected ‘layar’, a stable AR browser that explains in simple English, how you can get information from various sources and layer it over what your camera sees. It also supports all kinds of devices: iPhones, Androids and even some Nokia phones. Simple, right?
Wrong. The backend creation was simple enough. We created a database which would store the geo-location information with the URL of an image. The image we stored on Flickr, the geo coordinates we got from Google maps. We created a front end where users could add their own images and coordinates.
When we used the 1SAM layar and walked around Khirkee, the phone would figure out where we were; it would then use that to add images of installations and pictures that were taken around us. We had connected where to what. Minor changes aside, it worked quite well.
Except, we were testing 1SAM on iPhones. When we moved to Android devices, random things would work and others would just disappear. On different handsets, different things happened. No matter what we did, we just couldn’t fix this. As the submission and workshop dates approached, in desperation we contacted layar.
Their response was pretty much what we expected. The Android eco-system has become so fragmented, that code needed to be changed, not according to different manufacturers, but according to each handset model. Options that exist for the iPhone, don’t exist for the Android client. In sum, for every Android device the experience is just not the same. None the less we have got it to work.
Today, when you walk around Khirkee, with a decent smart phone and a 3G connection, your phone gives you a little window into the little pieces of art and various uploaded memories that existed around you. That little window to history has opened.
We hope that when you come around here, you’ll upload your very images, moments and memories onto 1SAM, leaving behind a little something, for someone else to discover and add to.
First Person is a new column in which Little Design Book invites practitioners to tell us about a particular project, their inspiration or creative process from their point of view.
All images used herein are © Copyright BlueAnt Digital Intelligence and have been used with permission.