Augmented Reality and Merging Worlds

Man holding cellphone playing Pokemon Go.

Last weekend I visited Trentham Gardens with the intention of immersing myself in the ether of the natural environment – to enjoy a peaceful walk, to absorb the array of natural colours & aromas, and to seek and enjoy the unchained and liberated sense of spatial freedom. My visit turned out, however, to be more of a field observation rather than a walk in the park – and Pokémon Go was to blame! The experience highlighted the increasing pervasive presence, use, and impact of Augmented Reality, and re-affirmed my view that there is no better time to study Computing than now. Let me explain.

Augmented Reality is about the merging of worlds – the real world and the virtual world.   The result is a hybrid construct that we are able to perceive, experience, and interact with. We are naturally and physically part of the real world in terms of the immediate spatial context and what it presents (i.e. what we physically see, touch, hold, taste etc.) and in terms of a temporal context (i.e. how we live through and suffer the effects of time – like getting older every day!) A virtual world is one that has been digitally created. It is, relative to the ‘real world’, artificial – for example, when you play a game you are immersed in an environment that has been created (programmed) and this is what you interact with. When engaging with each type of world, the resulting experience is very real. It may be subjective, but real – it’s what we feel.   I used the word ‘relative’ earlier – and that’s because there’s a great deal of debate to be had about what me mean by ‘real’ in the first place.

What I observed at Trentham Gardens is indicative of what is being observed and reported around the world – changes in fundamental behaviour as a consequence of accessible Augmented Reality. I saw the duality of two worlds manifest and unify seamlessly as my walking companion traversed through Augmented Reality by interleaving the world of Trentham Gardens with the world of Pokémon – yes, she was playing Pokémon Go!

I admit that at first I was irritated, perhaps more so at the intrusion of technology in such a serene and tranquil natural setting than at the disruption of our dialogue caused by the intervening smartphone (an iPhone 6 to be precise). Irritation soon turned to intrigue, and hence began my observations. I observed that my walking companion fluently described the composition of the floral labyrinth and its component perennials, and then described in detail the Stage 1 form of Pikachu and its evolution to a Stage 2 Raichu, and how a Poliwag evolves to a Poliwhirl and then a Poliwrath.   This was followed by a real-world description of pollination – triggered by a bee hovering around a bed of Tulips. The bilingual switching was instantaneous and the articulation was impressive.

I observed that in following the paths through the gardens and around the lake my fellow walker was also on the trail of certain species of Pokémon. The route entailed physical exertion, taking in the scenery, learning about the historic clock tower through augmented reality, learning about Pokémon Gym battles, and capturing at least 4 different types of Pokémon during the walk. She periodically stopped to effect these captures and I noted her resulting emotive expressions of joy and victory – not dissimilar to those resulting from the appreciation of the Italian Gardens. I observed the interleaving of the physical spatial context with the virtual ecosphere of another reality, and effective temporal co-ordination of living in clock time and virtual time simultaneously. She was, effectively, in two places at the same time.

Our walk ended after an hour and a half. I concluded that Augmented Reality was a serious matter – something capable of affecting all aspects of life and behaviours, something capable of generating new experiences and changing the world that we live in, and something that raises metaphysical questions relating to fundamental existence – and what we mean by this. Should we be surprised by this? Perhaps not. Consider this: you have been digitised and injected into the digital world for some time and your digital avatar, in its various forms, has been traversing that world – perhaps typified by the expressions, “you’re in the system” or “you’re not in the system.” Transcending boundaries of different worlds started long ago. What we see today is an evolution, but with revolutionary impact – where technology has matured to such a degree that a reciprocation can occur and the digital world can, in its various forms, inject itself into the physical world that we live in – into our system.

So why do I think that there is no better time to study Computing than now? Scholars of Computing are the architects of the digital future and next-generation systems. The technical composition of the discipline provides not only the nuts and bolts needed to construct that future, but also the knowledge and skills of how to build it. Augmented Reality is one example of how Computing can be innovatively applied to yield transformative impact and value across industry sectors including the creative industries, healthcare, business, future living environments, and secure societies.   Our students are not just scholars of Computing – we see them as Digital Pioneers.


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Image Credit:

California, United States -23 July 2016 : Man holding a cellphone while playing Pokemon Go and trying to catch a monster. Pokémon Go is a free-to-play location based augmented reality mobile game developed by Niantic and published by The Pokémon Company as part of the Pokémon franchise.