Augmented Reality, Repainting Public Space

I’ve been fiddling with Augmented Reality for quite a few years now (certainly since 2009), and I’ve described many possible uses.

I was pleased to see NO AD  by Re+public Lab (“Re+Imagining Public Space”): overlay adverts on the subway with visual art works. The project curates a collection of works and maps them to current poster ads on the New York City subway system.   Using the NO AD app on your mobile device, you see the artwork instead of the ad.

Technically, this is pretty straightforward, using basic AR technology (e.g., Ethnobotany Workbook, Alma Mater Statue). Honestly, this would be a way better app for glasses or projected AR (coming soon), rather than the hand held. I think you can see why we want the hands free AR—its not just for home game play.

I’ve long been interested in this paradigm, creating personal, customized visual overlays in various environments. It’s sort of like virtual graffiti, seizing and subverting the surfaces of the city, painting over the commercial and institutional messaging.  In fact, Re+public Lab has done a bunch of projects exploring these ideas, augmenting the concept of urban grafitti art.

The current technology is purely a private experience, whatever vision I have is mine alone. And it is pretty much just viewing, there isn’t a way for me to overlay my own content on the world. These are interesting affordances (there is nothing wrong with this sort of “private broadcasts”), but both these limitations can certainly be eliminated in the future. Then we can all spray imagery over the surfaces, and everyone can see. (Sounds chaotic—filtering will be necessary.)

There certainly are some ethical questions raised by this work. It is a form of defacement, blocking the view of advertising, and possibly undercutting a source revenue for the subway system. And when NO AD decides to cover up a political ad, we are entering the realm of fee speech.

The ethics aren’t clear here. The public message is undisturbed, and anyone can still see it. But anyone using NO AD will see the app’s view of the world instead, substituting the curators’ private ideas for the actual, real, public space. This private override is a little ironic in a product that is motivated by a desire to improve public space. Just what does “public space” mean, in an age of Augmented Reality?

I should also note that riding the subway is one place that using AR in public (including glasses if you had them) is safe (and not outrageously anti-social). But the same app would be a very bad idea while driving, or even walking in NYC. I’ll give the Re+public folks credit for releasing a safe product.


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