Augmenting reality for real

14th July 2016

In the medieval streets of the French town of Cahors yesterday, son Nick and daughter Kate were delighted to teach their grandmother Beryl how to catch a zubat. Of course Pokémon GO hasn’t been released in Europe yet but any self-respecting owner of a smartphone already has a grey-market app. The pesky Pokémons also seem to have been widely released across the continent. Like much of the rest of the world, I’m modestly fascinated by this vivid variant of augmented reality. And oddly enough, one of the things it immediately reminded me of was the recent arts event ‘we’re here because we’re here’ (more simply, #wearehere), commissioned by 14-18 NOW to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.


First, a little background on Pokémon GO, with which we’ll all be a good deal more familiar within a matter of days. This is the official video introduction:

The Guardian has published a slew of articles already, including ‘The top five most surprising stories about Pokémon Go … so far’ and Alex Hern’s fascinating ‘Who owns the virtual space around your home?’

If you need something a bit more basic, there’s a good explainer here, from Vox.

And Ralph Koster’s ‘AR is a MMO’ is a much more detailed consideration, especially of the ethical issues raised by the game.

As for #wearehere, the 14-18 NOW web page is here, and Charlotte Higgins’ Guardian article is the best background piece. In this, artist Jeremy Deller explains the rationale:

In the 21st century I felt we had do something different [from earlier war memorials]. So I thought about the memorial being human, and travelling round the country. It would take itself to the public rather than the public taking itself to the memorial. And also the public wouldn’t know in advance that there was this thing happening – they would encounter it in the shopping centres and carparks and outside schools and in everyday British life. And I wanted to avoid heritage places – churches, war memorials. I wanted to take it to the public.

Ghostly creatures, whether zubats or First World War soldiers, appearing unexpectedly in our everyday world. Visible only through a smartphone or – as with #wearehere – with the naked eye but on only a single day. The silent animations of Pokémon GO parallel the soldiers from the trenches who, rather than speaking, simply handed over a card commemorating one of the fallen. Both enhance our world, shifting just a little the ways we see things and the ways we make sense of what otherwise we take for granted.

Both Pokémon GO and #wearehere are also experiences developed in secret and then released for us to discover – and of course, once we’ve done so, to share. For both are conceived for a world saturated by social media, where experience demands ratification on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

One, however, for all its attractions, offers only what I think of as the ‘thin-ness’ of the digital, conjuring up the insubstantial to create a form of what the Guardian critiques as ‘augmented marketing’:

Pokémon Go offers the players a chance to revert to the pursuits of their childhood. It seems to have little appeal to people who never played the original game. But it offers the owners much more… By designating some places as important to the game it can draw players there, and it is only a matter of time before it starts selling to businesses the ability to draw in potential customers like that… The ultimate goal of Pokémon Go is to make shopping the only game in town. If that happens, we will all be the poorer.

The other experience, #wearehere, for just a single memorable Friday, augmented our reality with bodies and uniforms and the memories of men and boys who had once been and were no longer. This was a world of materiality and of stuff, but also of those who had been sons and brothers and husbands and lovers. Because we were movingly reminded of them, of their sacrifice and of the idiocies that brought about their deaths, we were all the richer.

Image: #wearehere photograph courtesy gallery.

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