The most important question facing the augmented reality community - one whose answer will shape the future of AR - is content creation. Put simply, it's a question of Who can create What kind of content, and How they will create it. At the moment, a noticeable gap separates those who can create AR experiences from those who cannot. High barriers to entry in the form of skills, technology, or expense like those in front of AR are acceptable for a new medium at the early stages of development, but in the long run, making it easy for all those people who don't know a fiduciary marker from fiduciary trust to easily create valuable experiences for themselves and others is far more important to the viability of AR than resolving any of the many conceptual, design, or technological challenges visible at the moment.
In fact, unless the AR community makes it easy for ordinary people to create and share meaningful content broadly, I wager augmented reality will remain a marketer's overworked dray horse in the near and middle term future. And in the long term, augmented reality experiences will become at best an interface lens [as Adam Greenfield suggests here] supporting specialized visualization needs and a limited range of interactions (with correspondingly limited value), all built around resources originating from elsewhere within the ubiquitous digital experience ecosystem.
I think this is a 'negative outome' for AR only because I see so much potential. As a class of experiences, augmented reality has the potential to change our understanding of the world we are immersed in at every moment, but only rarely apprehend in a way that makes informed interaction with people and the environment possible. As Tish Shute noted in her recent interview with Bruno Uzzan, I see the collection of tools, technologies, and concepts affiliated under the banner of augmented reality as the leading ambassador for ubiquitous computing and the weird world of everyware that is rising around us.
Recent developments show progress towards bridging the gap. First is Mobilizy's proposal of a common markup language - ARML [Augmented Reality Markup Language], based on KML - to the Augmented Reality Consortium. Setting aside all other questions about ARML, the primary content creation problem I see with this approach is the explicitly geographic frame of reference in KML. Most people simply do not think in the same terms used by geolocative schemes. When I ask how far it is to the market, and someone replies "4 minutes north", they're not thinking in minutes of latitude.... But rather than attempt to reorient the GIS / GEO location worldview to one that's more natural in human terms, I think the pragmatic solution is a translation layer in the creation experience that avoids coordinates or other non-natural lcoative schemes, much as domain names overlay or broker IP addresses. As an example, recall how the travel service Dopplr prompts you to enter the name of a place, suggests likely matches from a library of defined and managed place names, and only then addresses the coordinates associated with that location.
In addition, ARML will need some sort of ability to capture markup that is *not* dependent on geographic reference. This may seem counterintuitive for a medium that aims to augment reality (which is, after all, a place), but remember that people also orient themselves in terms of other people, time, activity, identifier, etc. Hanging everything that augments reality off of the geographic skeleton will result in instant reference scheme hackery on an immense scale. At the least, AR content creation experiences based on ARML will need some means of invoking other reference schemes.
The second development is Layar's launch of buildAR.com, a public web-based content creation tool that supports map based interaction that extends the model for creation experiences beyond coordinate tagged text data. BuildAR.com is an early stage tool, but it marks a step toward the evolution towards the goal of reflexivity; the stage of maturity wherein it is possible for people who are unaware of the structure and concepts that define the medium to easily use tools provided within the medium to create experiences. In McCLuhanesque terms, this effectively entails making provision for using the medium to extend itself.
I'm talking about both direct and indirect creation pathways for augmented content, though the emphasis is on the direct end of the continuum. Indirect creation could take many forms, such as translating existing geolocative tags or appending ARML metadata to existing digital content items; perhaps social objects like photos, tweets, hotel reviews, or recipes. Or content that is created as a result of Google Wave, or the instrumentation of urban settings, and our basic economic processes. (A deep dive into the question of direct vs. indirect content creation pathways would require mapping out the potential augmented content ecosystem of linked data, and assessing each type of data from the cloud of apis / services / sources using tbd criteria.)
Addressing the content creation gap is critical because enabling broad-based creation of augmented experiences will speed up experimentation for all the supporting models that need to evolve: business and revenue, data ownership, technical, conceptual, etc. Evolution is needed here; the early models for content creation include advertiser only (a default in the experimental stage for media where marketers and advertisers are pioneers), subscription based, open source, and nonprofit (academic and otherwise). None of these yet offers the right combination of convenience and context, the implacable twin giants who rule the domain of value judgments made by digital consumers and co-creaters.
Guidelines for Content Creation Experiences
So what should the AR community offer to close the creation gap? We've learned a lot about what works in broad-based content creation from the evolution of blogging and other mainstream platforms for social interaction. Without considering it extensively, the guidelines for a content creation experience (mind, I'm not discussing the technical enablers) are:
- No cost of entry: Creating content cannot require spending money (at least for basic capability), as the effort involved is already an investment.
- No cognitive overhead: Creating content cannot require understanding new abstract concepts, mastering tools with low usability, learning complex languages or terminology, etc.
- No maintenance: Creation tools must act like self-maintaining services, i.e. tools that do not require effort or attention
- No accessibility barriers: For global adoption, content creation experiences need to be accessible, which means low-bandwidth, multi-lingual, cross-media, and platform agnostic.
This is a starting list, but it captures the essence of the offerings that have been successful in the past.
In addition to the experience, the content that people create needs to follow some guidelines.
- Addressable: Including findability and searchability, AR content must be fully addressable by a broad spectrum of tools and protocols. AR will fail at bridging the real and digital if the content people create for augmented experiences cannot - at least partially - be addressed across this boundary, which is what makes AR an enchanted window rather than a simple browser / UI lens. This seems like the simplest of these guidelines (after all, what isn't addressable in a digital space?), but I think in the end it will be quite challenging to realize.
- Interoperable: Content must work across platforms, formats, and browsers, in terms of creation, sharing, and management.
- Portable: Content must be movable or portable for people to make the effort of creation; it cannot be confined to a single storage location, service, tool, owner, etc. This touches on the familiar questions of data ownership and the commons.
The goal of these suggestions is to push AR toward maturity and broader adoption as quickly as possible, using lessons from the evolution of the Web. What suggestions for guidelines for content creation experiences and the nature of AR content do you have?
If I am off base in thinking the creation barrier critical at this early stage of augmented reality's rise above the experimental waterline, then what is more important?
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