Bad pun in the title aside, augmenting our environment really is something that has been part and parcel of humanity since time immemorial. Over millennia we have sought to make our world more comfortable or efficient with varying degrees of success. However, Augmented Reality (AR) is now one of the most exciting digital frontiers; and whilst most of the buzz surrounding AR is generated by innovations such as Magic Leap and the Hololens, we must not forget that most people in developed countries hold amazing, AR capable devices in the form of their smartphones.
Augmenting our world no longer means constructing and destroying what lies around us, but adding new layers that can speak to our mood, our likes and our needs. So far augmented reality has been with us for a number of years, but the amount of people engaging with it is still a fraction of the potential audience this technology can reach. What gives?
My first foray into augmented reality was about 4 years ago, with the Un/seen Evergreen. It was the first public art installation in Valletta that lasted for more than 2 years, right in the middle of the city. A digital, generative tree that grew as people visited it. Unfortunately, no matter how much we marketed the application it barely got more than a 150 downloads – and yes it was free – so the tree is still little more than a sapling.
A couple of years after the launch of the Un/seen Evergreen, I was talking to festival managers in Malta and noticed a problem similar to the one we had. No matter how much they promoted their applications, people were not downloading them. And the more I dug into this the more I saw that it was a common problem. I’ve met with large advertising agencies dying to invest in AR, only to scrap the idea because their clients don’t want to have an app that people just won’t download.
And why would they download them? When most people spend the majority of their time getting everything they need from two or three apps, why would they download a single use app? It may be amazing, it may be really cool, but to use it once? In fact, the most successful app based campaigns were those that gave the users a coupon or two, or important functionality like transport information.
Now instead of downloading a new app each time we have a new AR experience out there, what if we had one app that allowed us to just walk around and explore the many new layers that our world can contain? A single app that allows us to see the advertising that matters to us, exciting new art installations, tours of new cities and even municipal news. What if the next time we visit our favourite festival, loading up our trusted AR app will show us that our city hasn’t only transformed physically, but also digitally for the occasion.
After years of experiments and research, a few weeks ago I teamed up with Mark Debonoand Max Aiuppa of Gallarija.mt, and together we’ve started working on CitySee.io – an open platform designed to bring AR to the masses. A platform that is as malleable as creators want it to be, combining both GPS based AR as well as marker based AR.
It’s early days, and by that I mean we have a working prototype that is growing as we speak, but not really ready for its closeups – but our goal is that by the end of 2019, CitySee.io will offer a wealth of AR experiences across Malta with a special focus in and around Valletta.
Our goal is to provide a platform where artists can launch AR installations for free with a simple to use interface, and advertisers can book their favourite corners for their digital and targeted advertisements – be they 3D, 2D, still or moving. And all this, happening with no impact on physical environment. No signposts going up, or billboards taking over our pavements.
We believe that augmenting the world around us, no longer requires that we have a negative impact on our environment, and that an open and accessible platform can allow us to add layers to our world that truly expand our horizons.