This holiday my 7 year old son received all kinds of gifts: a wooden puzzle; a human anatomy set; a David Attenbourough DVD; reference books; and a jewellery making kit. The gift I didn’t plan to give him with such enthusiasm was digitally augmented reality (AR) apps.
Kiddlette isn’t usually all that enthused with technology — generally he’d rather be outside than playing on an iPad. Which is why it was a such a surprise to me that he took to augmented reality apps with utter screen-glued fascination. Perhaps it was because all the apps catered to his personal obsession with nature and the environment.
At a local market before the holidays I’d hurriedly picked up a pack of Animal 4D+ augmented reality cards — and then at a post-office, I’d purchased a Popar Sea Life augmented reality book. Both items were relatively cheap. At $15 and $10 respectively, they were three times cheaper than a DVD set, and around the same price as a reference book.
Both apps were educational. Unbeknownst to me until all presents were unwrapped, Kiddlette’s uncle had also brought him the DK 3DPops educational augmented reality book ‘Earth.’
The $15 pack of Animal 4D+ cards were a hit. My first instinct on playing with Animal 4D+ augmented reality cards was to email the developers and beg them to let me work with them to create new card decks and books. Not for Kiddlette. For me, specifically tailored to my interests.
We opened the card pack a couple of days before the holidays, and Kiddlette spent nearly three hours during a long car drive using my iPhone to explore the alphabet cards: making a bee fly, an octopus float and an elephant sway its trunk. From an educational perspective, it was probably two-years-too-young for Kiddlette, but being able to make a creature “come to life” off the page was excellent amusement for any age.
What was even more surprising was the reaction of Kiddlette’s 50-something-year-old uncle to playing with augmented reality for the first time. I hadn’t expected him to take much of an interest in the Animal 4D+ cards, as the deck was aimed at children — but for a good half an hour he played with the cards, pointing out how his local environmental protection group could use AR to help visitors to the region explore and develop a connection with endangered animals in the forest.
The Animal 4D+ app also includes a photo feature, allowing users to take augmented reality images — Kiddlette happily snapped photos of a virtual lion stalking through the veggie patch in the backyard at my aunt’s house.
My main criticism of the Animal 4D pack is minor: the “Q” card features a Queen Bee. Conceptually, it’s a hard link for a young person learning the alphabet to make. “Why would a card with the letter “Q” have a picture of a bee?”, a small person may well ask.
The Popar Sea Life augmented reality book was the second gift Kiddlette opened. It allows children to explore elements of the book in greater detail by scanning images off the book pages via an app. For instance, sharks appear as 3-D images swimming on the screen, alongside expandable information tabs. Like the Animal 4D+ cards, images on the screen can be captured as photographs, and also video as well. Kiddlette was captivated by the ability to expand on information in the book by scanning images. For a first-grader, it was the perfect educational level.
While neither the Animal 4D+ set and the Popar Sea Life book require users to create an account to download the app, it’s worth reading both apps privacy policies carefully.
The final AR gift Kiddlette received this year was DK 3DPops educational book ‘Earth.’ The book itself is a great resource about planet earth, but we hit a snag when it came to using the AR function: we were visiting family in the country for the holidays, and using all their data to download yet another app seemed rather rude. Also the DK 3DPops book requires installation of software and signing up to a license, and at that point it seemed easier not to bother. So we didn’t. The book remained an un-augmented book, and Kiddlette was fine with it, just reading the print and looking at the pictures.
I am of the impression it’s worthwhile paying careful attention to the cheap tech that sneaks into children’s presents. The gifts my son received suggest a future of augmented realities. Not one singular reality, but a potential multiplicity of meanings. Not a singularity of connectedness, but instead many meanings, hidden inside what were once ordinary objects, providing new realms of exploration.
Watching my son play with AR technology, I thought about the many ways in which the meaning my son finds in the world is shaped by technology he’s privileged to access. How will children who don’t have access to AR in the coming years compete in education? If connection to information and understanding is expanded by AR, what does the future hold for those who cannot access the technology?
While children’s AR toys are cheap to purchase, use of AR technology is predicated upon an internet connection and access to compatible hardware. Perhaps rather than bringing us closer together, AR will potentially push people further apart, like so many technologies before it: divide us by platforms, software, access to apps, and access to the internet. AR will potentially increase fragmentation of meaning through walled gardens of access to information.
That physical artefacts — books, cards, buildings or even geographic locations — can hold totally different messages hidden within them for different audiences isn’t a particularly new concept. For instance, think of the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem, and the different meanings the location and structures hold for different religious groups. Personally I’m less worried about tribalised perspectives of reality than the risk of walled gardens of access to information.
Conflict over who has the right to imbue meaning into artefacts and who has the right to access those meanings, where and how and when — these are all old challenges, and these challenges are increasing due to new uses of technology.
It comes with no great surprise to learn Snapchat has acquired Israeli augmented reality start-up Cimagine, valued at an estimated $30–40 million. Like many, it seems Snapchat has realised the best way of avoiding being made redundant is to choose your own adventure and to program realities for as many of us as it can. You have to wonder how many adverts Snapchat users of augmented reality will be forced to view, and how much of their personal data will be harvested in the search to monetise augmented reality.
Personally, I kind of miss my teenaged days of scribbling chalk sigils on rock markers. Those secret messages, free for only those who could read them properly to interpret, without adverts and interference from anyone over the message. Mine alone to share.
Augmenting reality doesn’t necessarily require an app, but if you want to use a digital technology to augment your own, I suggest programming your personal reality, rather than hoping someone will give you the reality that you want. And if you can’t program it yourself… then consider reading the Terms of Service very carefully before plunging into corporate augmented reality apps. Let’s do more than simply hope our brave new worlds will work out fine without our personal input into how content is created, shaped and delivered.
While offering us new realms, augmented reality is more likely to diverge realities than resolve differences. Teenagers playing Pokemon Go at Auschwitz earlier this year was perhaps a signal we all should have given more thoughtful attention.
Asher Wolf is the founder of Cryptoparty. Also Amnesty Australia 'Humanitarian Media Award' recipient 2014. Greens volunteer 2016 election. Former APS social media officer.
But for yesterday, it was simply a delight to watch my son make animals wriggle on an iPhone screen.