[INTERVIEW] BC “Heavy” Biermann: Taking Back Public Spaces With AR

I’m one of several people who write about how augmented reality will change the world some day.  BC “Heavy” Biermann is one of the few people currently helping to make that happen.  In addition to working as an assistant professor of media, BC is the founder and developer behind The Heavy Projects, the brains behind several innovative AR projects.  In the course of preparing my upcoming talk on “Augmented Reality and Social Change,” I had the great fortune of talking to BC and learning more about his vision of our augmented future.

Occupy AR

The first example of BC’s work that I came across–and the one most obviously tied to social change–is the “Occupy AR” channel he developed at the height of last fall’s Occupy protests.  This was a channel on the junaio AR browser by metaio.  The channel carried information for the Occupy protests in five different cities across the country.  Using the GPS coordinates of scheduled demonstrations, the channel guided users to the site, and offered related contact information.

The Occupy AR channel made a splash online as one of the earliest, starkest examples of AR being used to foment social change.  BC supports the Occupy movement and is happy to have contributed.  But I discovered that he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the final product.

“It came down to a lack of time,” BC says.  For starters, he never intended the channel to rely on geolocation.  He much prefers AR applications that use feature tracking.  “That’s why I chose the junaio platform in the first place,” he said, “because it was the best at feature tracking at the time.”  (He hasn’t yet gotten a chance to develop for the newer Layar Vision platform.)  BC’s original concept was designed to recognize the NYPD logo, overlay that with the Occupy symbol, and use that to direct users to the park where the demonstrators were camped out.  But the code to make that happen wasn’t working, and developments within the Occupy movement were happening quickly.  So he fell back to the geolocation mechanics that most smartphone AR apps use.

“I had a whole web-based back-end planned, too,” BC laments.  This would have tied into the Occupy AR channel to allow users to upload video, and give organizers the chance to collect visitor analytics.  He made preliminary plans with the Occupy Wall Street organizers in New York to develop the site, “but again, time just ran out.”

As a result, he has no idea how many people actually used the Occupy AR channel.  If nothing else, though, it proved the concept that AR can offer a unique way to use draw people to a physical location using digital data.

Hijacking Outdoor Advertisements

BC takes more pride in the development work he’s done for the New York-based Public Ad Campaign.  This organization believes “that public space and the public’s interaction with that space is a vital component of our city’s health,” and considers “outdoor advertising [to be] the primary obstacle to open public communications.”  Its mission is to “air our grievances in the court of public opinion and witness our communities regain control of the spaces they occupy.”

One of Public Ad Campaign’s several attempts to further this goal was a project called the “AR Ad Takeover.”  This smartphone/tablet app used feature tracking to recognize particular print advertisements that were then prominent across New York City.  The app then superimposed original art on top of those ads, essentially replacing their commercial message with an expression of the Campaign’s choosing.

In April 2011, BC launched a similar app that hijacked the movie poster for the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  The app morphed the face of “Captain Barbossa” (played by Geoffrey Rush) into that of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein–who BC calls “the real pirate.”  (Since then, BC notes with a healthy dose of irony, he’s noticed film companies intentionally using AR in some of their movie posters.)

The Heavy Projects have at least two new projects in the works for 2012.  The first is a “digital murals” project to “re-skin” public buildings.  Using feature tracking and 3D digital models, users will be able to superimpose a different appearance over certain buildings, and even see them “decay over time.”  The second project seeks to replicate these efforts in young minds.  BC is working with a nonprofit organization in New York to teach inner-city kids how to use junaio to replace outdoor advertisements with their own “ARt.”

Democratizing Messaging in Public Space

Each of these are steps in an “iterative process” toward an overall “philosophical” goal in mind with these efforts, he says.  It is two-fold: first, to change the way people think about public space, and second, to democratize the way public spaces are used for communication.  Or, as BC says, “eradicating the last bastions of common space that you can’t control.”

AR can democratize messaging in public space,” BC says.  “I’m not against commercial messaging per se, but I’m opposed to commercial dominance.”  Like most of us who write about the future of AR, BC envisions a world where people wear AR-powered eyewear that seamlessly superimposes digital data atop our field of vision in a seamless, effortless manner.  But for BC, the “killer app” for such hardware would be an “open environment platform that allows users to filter their environment according to their interests.”  Users of such a platform would not see the billboards and other commercial messaging that now occupy so much of our public space unless they chose to.

As hard as BC is working to make this dream a reality, however, he freely acknowledges the drawbacks that would come with it.  I asked him whether this ability to filter one’s experience of reality could lead to more political groupthink (also called the “echo chamber effect“), where people only get information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs, leading to an erosion in social cohesion and civic discourse.

“The question is right on target,” says BC,”and honestly, I have no good answer for it right now.”  He suggests that there should eventually be a way to combine filtering with an avenue for unfiltered information as well.  But the echo chamber problem is already inherent in our current media environment, he notes, and on balance, he believes that ending what he sees as commercial dominance of public spaces will still be a net-positive.

BC is also grounded enough to not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I asked him about another form of public messaging that people often consider an eyesore: the abundance of traffic signage that lines our roads.  Why not, as I’ve speculated about, replace them all with digital content viewable only to drivers through an augmented windshield?

His reaction exhibited caution and thoughtfulness.  “Generally, I’m in favor of reducing clutter,” he says.  “But stop signs are for pedestrians too.  If not everyone needs to see it, then I favor removing it.  But that also presupposes that all drivers have access to the right technology, and that it’s reliable.”  In other words, this is not something that’s around the corner.

Dream or Destiny?

On that note, I asked BC whether he believes that his vision of an augmented public space will ever truly come to pass.  “I’m hopeful, put it that way,” he says.  Most of the R&D he’s seen has been taking place in Europe, but US companies are catching up.  BC has his eyes on Qualcomm and the Google Goggles project.  “As a developer, it’s out of my hands,” he says.  Bu he can’t wait for the hardware to catch up with the potential offered by the type of AR software he’s able to develop.

“We’ve also got to keep ‘gimmicky’ AR from dominating the market,” he says. “It will be more challenging” to promote AR as a means of democratizing public spaces if the public comes to associate AR with “pointless” apps that BC considers mere “diversions.”

Whether or not you agree with BC’s view of commercial messaging and public spaces, his creativity and determination are admirable.  BC Biermann is poised to be one of the people in the vanguard of socially meaningful augmented reality.

Questions: Do you agree with BC’s view of public spaces?  Will AR make our view of the world more, or less, democratic? Can AR apps really help change the world?  Leave your responses in the Comments section below.