Digital Skyscrapers in Augmented Reality
BY Rachel Schlotfeldt — January 21, 2022

The surface of the world today has been tread on with digital footprints. The information we consume and output, and the networks of data we navigate leave their invisible mark on the world we traverse. Simultaneously, the density of urban areas and the upward growth of concrete physical landscapes have raised questions regarding the development of the metropolis. But in what ways do analog and digital crowding interact?

Ivan Toth Depe's recent project, Lapse, explores sculptures, murals, subways, and parks layered with augmented reality. After downloading the app on their phones, viewers can see physical spaces in Miami transform as the binaries that separate technology from our reality are broken down and morphed into a new landscape. This idea of heightened reality and the artistic and social layering of information is a question that is being explored through a variety of angles. Beau Lotto's app, Traces, allows users to attach digital photos, videos, and text to physical locations to share with friends. Keiichi Matsuda's hyper-reality film explores what the future of augmented reality might look like as we move toward an extreme saturation of content.

City skylines are changing, and the digital skyscrapers being constructed are rapidly altering our methods of navigation through space as well. The layering of stories on physical spaces and the tying of augmented content to locations raises interesting questions about the histories we make and the ways in which we will be able to experience them communally. If augmented reality is tailored to each individual, blocking or amplifying certain aspects of shared physical space could potentially lead to a factioned and disconnected world. Not only does this have the possibility to limit our capacity for empathy or community building, but it could also lead to problematic divisions being created. When reality, or what is to stand in for reality, can be curated, how do we communicate shared experiences?

Furthermore, when our identities and larger sense of nationhood are birthed from language, then what kinds of bonds are able to be formed without the common denominator of cultural experience? There's something particularly interesting about the ways in which physical space anchors us to history. When thinking of darker aspects of our identity or history, tangible environments force us to reckon with the past. Geography, architecture, and artifacts make it more difficult to deny the terms of our making. But in a digital world, if there is no anchor, then building layer after layer to cover up fragments without addressing the systemic root becomes possible. Layers of digital information, stories, and interactions that exist outside of the physical self or place might make objects transition into becoming nostalgic artifacts.

On the other hand however, there's a lot of possibility for space to be challenged and repurposed. There are opportunities to push up against systems of authority and mainstream voices of capital by subverting the physical spaces governed by them and placing new content in augmented reality. For example, the mass popularization of Pokemon GO led game players to discover a "LoveIsLove" pokemon in the Westboro Baptist Church. Could these forms of augmented dissent lead to tangible forms of action? At least at the advent of new kinds of location-based augmented reality experiences, there seem to be opportunities to destabilize traditional power structures, as these realms haven"™t been hierarchically structured or claimed.