What is the connection between harmony and augmented reality?

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

What is augmented reality and how does it inform urban design methods and approaches?

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself…  The fact of the matter is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings." — Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Over the next few decades, the evolution of urban spaces will tackle many challenges—some are as old as humanity, while others are newer and more immediate. Examples such as problems related to mobility and transportation, resilience and climate change, increasing urban populations and growing demands for food and energy are never far from our collective minds. 

However, what Christopher Alexander refers to above, it's also the challenge of creating and maintaining the sense of harmony between the individual and his or her surroundings that is often dismissed or forgotten in conversations surrounding the evolution of urban spaces.

In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery quotes the former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa, describing the power of successful city design: “We might not be able to fix the economy. We might not be able to make everyone rich, but we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”

Both Christopher Alexander and Charles Montgomery are making the point that there exists a symbiotic and mutual evolutionary relationship between people and their environments.  We create our surroundings, while at the same time, our environments define and shape us. The interactions between the individual and their surroundings have the potential to evoke feelings of happiness and create an extended state of harmony.  

For example, Nadi Group's very own Malvin Soh (urban designer) explores this topic in his articleNarratives of the City: My journey with a detective, a samurai and a writer. He writes about how the interplay of elements, mapping and interactions, when layered over one another, can create the backdrop of a happy and harmonious city.

Paula Simons, of the Edmonton Journal, says it another way: “A 21st century city doesn’t need a brand or a slogan. What a 21st century city needs is a strong sense of identity. What it needs, perhaps, is an origin myth in which it can take collective pride. A shared defining narrative that feels real, and not like something dreamed up by an out-of-town marketing firm.” 

Augmented reality: what is my point?  

What I’m trying to say is that each one of today’s cities and urban centers needs a medium that is sophisticated enough to tell these authentic origin or myth stories. The stories that enhance our collective pride give us a heightened sense of belonging, and grow the chords of harmony, ultimately making us happier. 

I’ve discussed the idea of a city’s genius loci (unique sense of place) in a previous article. The complex nature of the 21st century city suggests that describing the intrinsic value of the genius loci or the specific, authentic and unique attributes of each place, is a daunting goal. Trying to grasp the invisible weave of 

  • Culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc. that artists, writers and locals celebrate)
  • A place’s unique physical aspects (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, natural resources, architectural style(s), rustic crafts styles, pathways, views and multiple generations of the human artifact) may seem impossible  

What I’m proposing is that the advancement of augmented reality technologies has reached a point where they may offer a new, practical and interactive medium for creating surroundings that are the cause and effect of a more profound state of harmony and happiness in the urban environment.

Alan B. Craig’s book, Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Applications, offers a useful primer on augmented reality. In it, Alan describes augmented reality as a ‘medium’, not as technology. He explains that augmented reality mediates ideas between humans and computers, humans and humans, and computers and humans. Humans interact with different media in different ways: typically, people read a book, they watch a movie and they listen to music. Alan considers that the way people engage with augmented reality is to experience it, appealing to many of our senses.

Case study: Manitoba’s Walk of Fame

A municipality engaged Nadi Group to explore design options for a Manitoba Walk-of-Fame, celebrating many of its laudable citizens.  

What started off as a two-dimensional exploration of several plaque designs led to broader questions that only an augmented reality solution seemed able to answer:

  • Will all of our citizens, young and old, recognize the honoree simply by their name? How can we make sure that they do?
  • How do we ‘snow-proof’ the plaques for the winter season?
  • How do we convey why that person is being honored and bring their message to life?

Mainly, our challenge proved to be how we could use urban space (and technology) to tell a riveting and interactive story about exemplary members of the community, (some living, some not). As well, how we could design a walk of fame experience that forms closer bonds and deeper engagement with people who experience the place, increasing civic pride, and our sense of ‘happiness’ and ‘harmony’ within the surrounding community.

The conceptual solution was to design celebratory walk-of-fame plaques that doubled as high-tech augmented reality markers. When interacted with a mobile device, these markers would display three-dimensional avatars of the honorees (each one above their plaque). Furthermore, the digital avatar of each honoree could be animated, talk to the viewer and present additional information about himself or herself through text or audio (in multiple languages). 

While still in development, this idea could bring generations of historically significant citizens into the present consciousness of so many locals and visitors. Also, placing this technology in a physically and historically significant site would create an overwhelmingly strong experience, awakening layers of resonance within the community. 

With the technology progressing rapidly, and beyond the simple commercial uses for targeted marketing (watch Minority Report), urban design and the demands of the 21st-century city offer a myriad of opportunities in this medium to enhance our experience of urban surroundings in new and novel ways.  

In conclusion

Conversely, I believe that the 21st century city will also need the technologically advanced medium of augmented reality to tell many of our origin or myth stories adequately. Whether these stories are about a place’s culture or its unique physical aspects, a great man or a great woman, great loves or great wars—these stories are needed to build that sense of collective pride. And in turn, giving us a heightened sense of belonging and growing the chords of harmony within our surroundings.

Moreover, while the technology is the medium, it’s the landscape architect or urban designer, not the computer programmer, who is the artist. The landscape architect or urban designer of the future will have to embrace the challenge of identifying novel and unique stories and weaving them into augmented reality experiences that enhance our knowledge of a community and its place.

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