Cultural Narrative in Augmented Reality

Jay David Bolter
Georgia Insitute of Technology, USA
[Home Page]


Abstract: While many new media theorists and practitioners have explored virtual reality as a space for narrative and performance, less attention has been given to augmented reality (AR). In virtual reality the user occupies a visual (or audiovisual) space generated entirely by computer. In augmented reality, however, the space is a hybrid: the user typically wears a headset in which her view of the physical world is overlayed with computer-generated graphics and sound. The narrative possibilities of augmented reality are somewhat different from those of virtual reality, in part because designers in AR can exploit the creative tension between the user's sense of embodiment in the physical world and her experience of the virtual.

In our Sweet Auburn Project, we are beginning to explore the cultural narrative potential of AR; we are imagining how AR can be used to provide a compelling experience for a visitor to Atlanta's Auburn Avenue. This street was the cultural and economic center of the African-American community in Atlanta during the first half of the twentieth century and is now the site of the Martin Luther King Center and Memorial. In our preliminary design work, we are considering both indoor and outdoor AR interfaces to present the history of this community. Our design raises both formal and cultural questions.

Formally, we find ourselves refashioning earlier media forms in order to define a new narrative genre. These refashioned forms include documentary and narrative film and television, as well as museum exhibitions. In particular we are looking at one narrative form—which we call "ghost movies"—in which the user sees and hears human figures who float around the physical world and who either address the user directly or act out their dramas before the user as spectator. The ghost movies (digitized videos of actors portraying figures from the history of Sweet Auburn) refashion both traditional film and stage production.

As we script scenarios for the Sweet Auburn project, we must also consider the cultural construction of this new technology of representation. What vision of the African-American community and of Atlanta's history are we offering to our user? The naive assumption is that AR can exploit its first-person (or subjective) viewpoint to immerse the user in a cultural narrative—in this case, to give the user the experience of being an African-American inhabitant of the historical Sweet Auburn. Our AR project may in fact constitute a more complicated experience and thus may be able to fashion a more complex narrative than those offered by standard media and museum representations. In an historically constructed and yet spatially situated AR, the user seems to oscillate between the "immediacy" of experience and the "objectivity" of temporal and spatial distance. By foregrounding not only the multiple narratives possible in AR but also its inherently "augmented" character, the Sweet Auburn project seems to offer the viewer both immersion and critical distance.

About the Presenter: This is an individual presentation, but with four authors. All the authors are from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Jay David Bolter is a professor, and Kavita Philip and Terry Harpold are assistant professors in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture. Blair McIntyre is an assistant professor in the College of Computing.