The Creative Technologist Blog

What do you think of when you hear the word "augmented"? Most people will jump to the dreaded thought of fiddling with their phone camera to see some awful 3D model sit in the room around them doing nothing. Some people might even remember the Google Glass days where Google enabled us to see a low-resolution overlay of the weather at the low cost of obscuring our vision and becoming a social pariah.

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Ultimately, every thought on augmented reality circles around one keyword: gimmick.

Happily Drinking From The Poisoned Well

Never forget.
Photo by Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

The hype cycle around augmented reality products that never lived up to their promise has poisoned the well of all things augmented. People think of one thing when they hear augmented: augmented reality in the form of glasses or a phone camera, but it's much more than that.

It's tough to find conversations about truly augmented interactions. This is a shame because augmented products and services are the single best vehicle for pushing the envelope on what's possible with technology to improve the human experience.

For reference, here's a video of me just scrolling through the word "augmented" on Linkedin and Twitter:

Searching Linkedin and Twitter for "Augmented" to make a point

Now that's not to say all discourse around augmented is terrible; however, most of it leaves a lot to be desired. A small enthusiastic group of people who love the phone camera and headset application of augmented reality produce the most content around augmented technology and hyperfocus on these specific tools.

Their content causes a massive misunderstanding about what "augmented" means.

This misunderstanding inspires more content.

So on and so forth.

This is the poisoned well of augmented reality we happily drink from, which damns our conversations to the realm of gimmicks.

Filtering the poison

Genie ultrapure water purification system
Photo by RephiLe water / Unsplash

If we want to clean the poison from the augmented discourse, we need to start filtering out the poison, so you have a frame of reference for what's possible.

There's a few examples of reasonable augmented discourse around the web. However, before we dive into those examples, I want to make one thing clear:

It's not the tools in of themselves that are the poison.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using your phone camera or a headset in specific applications where they make sense. What's wrong here is trapping the idea of augmenting behind tools. We don't do this for any other field. If I say "automation," your first thought isn't, "I don't like self-checkout kiosks." You likely imagine a whole world of possibilities as a future state of being rather than a single application.

Here are some examples of high-value augmentation:

UCLA's Augmented Reality Sandbox. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE1B7tdGCw0
Outernets augmented digital signage. Source: https://youtu.be/n4aK6etBEAA
En Tea House. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmvi-O86vKo

Now that you're familiar with high-value augmentation let's dive a bit into the weeds and dissect what augmentation means.

What should augmented mean?

Now, I recognize my view of augmented might be somewhat contentious. After all, words are only meaningful if we agree on the same meaning. What's the point if everyone uses augmented in a limited capacity? Why can't we use words like "interactive" or "experiential" to describe these examples?

Well, they mean different things.

An interactive application or an experiential installation is not necessarily augmented. Take this museum exhibit, for example (I'll spare you the video commentary this time):

The Perot museum's dinosaur race exhibit.

In this example, the installation is experiential but not augmented. This exhibit is on a loop and does not react to physical stimuli of those who use it, nor does it change its behavior based on the context of the space it's in.

Now, think of an airport kiosk. Would you consider a kiosk augmented?

Photo by shawnanggg / Unsplash

Most people would not. I imagine you wouldn't either. Why is that?

While kiosks are interactive installations, they do not respond to the physical space's context or enable additional interactive capabilities with the real world. They are self-contained experiences.

Augmented means there is some form of feedback loop between the person, the digital world, and the physical world such that the physical world and digital world are both used to alter the person's experience in some way.

The key here is the digital world enabling bidirectional interactions in the physical world that would otherwise be impossible.

For reference, there are four main engagement categories:

Engagement Physical Digital Computer
Experiential Static Provides feedback Controls preset experience
Interactive Static Provides feedback and interactions Responds to interactions
from the user
through digital touchpoints
Virtual Provides feedback Provides feedback and interactions Maps a digital
environment to the
physical world but
does not respond
to physical stimuli
Augmented Provides feedback and interactions Provides feedback and interactions Responds to digital
touchpoints and physical
touchpoints
Engagement Examples Purpose
Experiential Non-interactive digital
displays, museum installations,
art installations
To evoke an
emotion or provide
a memorable experience
for the user
Interactive Kiosks, mobile apps,
web applications
To provide utility,
unity, or fun
in a digital
environment
Virtual Heads-up displays,
VR headsets, wayfinding
To provide utility,
unity, or fun
in a physical
environment with digital
touchpoints
Augmented Augmented reality sandbox,
a tea house
with thermal imaging
cameras, foot traffic
aware interactive digital
signage
To extend and
enable utility, unity,
or fun in
a physical environment
with digital and
physical touchpoints

The table above assumes a computer enables either digital and/or physical interactions for some person. Engagement verbiage for that enablement matters since we need to describe that bidirectional feedback.

We should call that "Augmented."

Make It Augmented

Not Bound by Rules
Photo by Josh Hild / Unsplash

The purpose of this article isn't to convince you it's not real augmented reality unless it meets this rigorous definition. I'm not here to go around correcting people like some technology police.

I have nothing against headsets or phone cameras, or any other form of what people call augmented reality. However, there certainly is a lot of it out there.

Our goal is to expand the idea of what's possible when weaving physical and digital worlds together. This publication exists for people who agree with our vision of augmented and want to embark on that journey with us. We'll still talk about interactive, experiential, and virtual topics but our heart is augmented.

A Quick Note About UX Planet

Defining Augmented, Virtual and Mixted Realities
A summary to remember which does what.
The UX Planet article referenced

This article was inspired by the definition article that UX Planet posted back in September. However, I don't think UX Planet falls into the same low-quality content vortex as other sites we often see about augmented technology. It's still an emerging field, so things will be rocky until we see more examples of augmented experiences implemented in the real world. If we want to see that happen, we need to expand how we talk and think about these subjects.

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