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Augmented Reality, Art, And Mastering The Medium

I just wanted to get the damn shot. It was proving difficult because I had to shoot over the tour guide’s shoulder to capture what was on the screen of the Lenovo Project Tango tablet she was holding, and the camera crew along on my tour kept edging into my frame. To make matters worse, because Lenovo was sending dozens of us through an exhibit in the Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya in small groups (I was Group 16), we didn’t have time to tarry. “We need to keep going,” whispered the guide as I tried to grab some b-roll of her holding the device.

It was a scramble, and it seemed like our run through the gallery was over in seconds. And the moment I exited and found myself back in the cocktail area with the rest of the journalists and Lenovo staffers present at the event, it hit me that I’d just blown a special opportunity.

I was given a chance to see works of art that I’ll probably never see again, and in a museum—achingly beautiful, like everything in Barcelona—that I may never have the chance to visit again, and I couldn’t tell you a single piece I saw.

According to the video, I shot a Rodin. I never actually looked at the painting in person, though. I was glued to my little camera screen, trying to get a good look at a tablet’s screen, and recursively failing.

Considering the device Lenovo was showing off was an augmented reality device, the bitter irony that I had “augmented” nothing stung; instead, I had reduced my experience in the art museum.

I stood there blinking for a moment. I couldn’t get back into the gallery, because other groups were getting their turn, and at that point in the evening, all the other exhibits were closed. I decided to head outside, where the museum steps—up on a veritable mountainside—afforded a panoramic view of the city.

This is not a diatribe against screens, nor against technology. Show me a grumpy old man carping about the good old days when people actually talked to each other at breakfast, and I’ll show you a guy who had his nose buried in a newspaper, absently muttering Mm hm, that’s nice to his family through the morning meal every day.

No, people have always found ways to disengage and distract. It’s just that the distraction du jour is often a mobile device.

To be clear, though, smartphones and tablets are not inherently “distractions;” they’re tools. Exceedingly powerful tools, at that. Think about what a smartphone is: a computing device that fits in your pocket and is equipped with an always-on portal to the collected knowledge of all of humanity, and with which you can instantly video chat with your family even when they’re an ocean away.

Of course, you can also use it to sit with your back to the breathtaking Barcelona skyline, as dusk descends upon the city and paints the Sagrada Familia in oranges and purples, and play Angry Birds for an hour.

It’s an easy (and already tired) trope to point to the growing tidal wave of AR and VR and pontificate on the dire state of disengagement. Images of zombified kids wearing VR HMDs are no doubt keeping Very Concerned Parents up at night. But that’s completely missing the point. Augmented reality, and even virtual reality, are actually about deeper engagement.

Imagine that you were able to navigate a city with a HUD (what Google Glass tried and ultimately failed to be) that fed you information about everything you looked at, with the names of businesses, restaurant ratings, and more all superimposed on the real world. How about the ability to look at a job site and have blueprints painted on the wall that you need to see inside of, and then collaborate with colleagues remotely on a solution, as Microsoft demonstrated with HoloLens.

Even in VR, wherein you immerse yourself in an entirely different world, there’s room for engagement. Companies like AltSpaceVR and Campfire Union are creating opportunities for social interaction in fun and exciting ways. Soon enough, you’ll likely be able to enter a game in a virtual world and play with your friends, just as so many of us do now in front of 2D screens. (In VR, too, immersion is a deeply engaging experience; yes, you remove yourself from the real world, but you dive into another.)

And on and on. We’re just now getting a glimpse of what these new technologies can do. 

AR and VR are about to deliver us a whole new set of tools for working, communicating, designing, dreaming, and yes, playing. The challenge is to learn what to expect from, and how best to use, those tools – to master the medium.

This is nothing new. We’ve all been faced with this need to master new media in our lifetimes. The Internet, PCs, smartphones—there are better ways and worse ways to use them all.

The Project Tango implementation that Lenovo showed us is actually rather simplistic, but it’s a marvelous way to navigate any museum. If you want to learn more about a given artwork, you can point the tablet at it and gain access to all kinds of information. What is this piece? Who was this artist? When did he live? Where? What were his inspirations? Who were his contemporaries? And then you can look at the tablet’s display to see a blue dotted line superimposed on the floor, escorting you along through the galleries.

Or…you can stare at famous paintings through the tablet’s display only, and miss the art entirely. The former is what augmented reality can give you, even in a simple application like this one; the latter is a waste, and it’s not the technology’s fault.

I’m glad Lenovo chose the art museum for this event. Had we been, I don’t know, in some mall using the Project Tango tablet to find sales or something equally banal, I wouldn’t have learned anything other than the fact that augmented reality sure is neat.

It was getting dark. I popped back inside the Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya and asked one of the Lenovo handlers at the front desk what the arrangements were to get back to the convention center. There would be a shuttle bus, or I could get a ride to the nearest metro station half a mile or so away.

I thanked her, slipped my phone in my pocket, and walked the distance to the metro, down to Plaça d’Espanya. Barcelona is gorgeous at night, and I didn’t want to miss anything else that evening.

Seth Colaner is the News Director for Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter @SethColaner. Follow us on Facebook, Google+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.