A Collective Hallucination: How Artists are Shaping the Future of AR

A visitor to the Festival of Impossible experiences an exhibit by immersive artist Can Büyükberber.

Earlier this summer in San Francisco, artists created a Festival of the Impossible. It was an exhibit of art in augmented reality and virtual reality. Visitors toured with tablets, using the devices to peer into beautifully crafted alternative universes. In one piece, an artist translated an opera singer’s voice into a live projection map of the sounds and the moods of the music. Another installation invited people into the artist’s Chinese-American childhood for a personal experience of the pushes and pulls of her bicultural identity.

While it’s still in the early days for augmented reality (AR), these projects give us a glimpse into the medium’s unique power to help tell immersive stories and tap deeply into human emotions. After visiting the festival, Wired magazine’s Esme Bella Rice wrote about how the technology enables artists as storytellers: “I realized the creations were not just technology demos, but that they gave the artists a chance to express their own ingenuity with technology in a way that’s never been this easy, nor this real.”

What AR means for creativity

“Augmented reality is a game changer. I think it allows artists to make the world incredibly playful, and to engage people in a deeply emotional way,” says Stefano Corazza, head of augmented reality for Adobe and founder of the Festival of the Impossible. Stefano has been on the front lines of emerging AR tech for years, including his work developing technology for 3D character animation as the founder of Mixamo.

From Stefano’s view, AR has the potential to combine the best of the digital and physical realms. “We’re used to art that lives in the physical world, without all the advantages of interactivity. And we’re familiar with interactive experiences that are fully digital and live on a screen. AR is bridging these two worlds. It’s providing new flexibility and fluidity to the physical world.”

Two qualities in particular make AR a new and distinct medium for artists. The first is how immersive it can be. “Our binocular field of view is pretty close to 120 degrees, but we’re all looking at experiences on a screen that only occupies 10, 20, maybe 30 percent of that,” says Stefano. “There’s always been a limit on how much you can feel those experiences. In the end you’re a little bit detached, you’re not in it. AR has a disruptive potential to break that limit, and really pull you into those worlds.”

The second element is interactivity. Because AR leaps off the screen and mingles with the physical world, it opens all kinds of possibilities — many not yet fully imagined — for how we’ll interact with AR-powered art. Eventually, Stefano predicts, we’ll engage our whole bodies with AR experiences, instead of using keyboards, mice, or tablets as our mediators.

“One of the immersive media artists in our Creative Residency program defined AR in the best possible way,” says Stefano. “AR is a collective hallucination.”

Joyce Grimm, the curator of the Festival of the Impossible, hopes AR will invigorate creativity more broadly: “I like thinking that the AR advancements might recharge people to imagine and create new possibilities for themselves and share their ideas for the future.”

As for where artists will take AR next, Stefano thinks we’re at the beginning of a cycle we’ve seen with other technologies. Film, in its early iteration, was used as a tool to capture live performances, but artists shaped it into a unique form of expression and created a completely new art. Likewise, early photography was about formal, staged portraits — then artists took the reins and developed the experimental, expressive dimensions of the medium. For AR the field is still wide open, and artists are beginning to chart what it will become.

Taking AR mainstream

Most of us probably don’t think of AR in our daily lives (yet), but the foundation for wider adoption is growing alongside the creative advances. By the end of the year, there will be 800 million AR-capable phones and tablets in the hands of users, jumping up to more than 4 billion devices by 2020 with wearables on the foreseeable horizon. And, thanks to Pokémon Go_, _AR has already taken root in the public consciousness, proving that millions of people are ready to embrace the medium’s unique mashup of the physical and digital worlds.

New AR applications continue to pop up in all kinds of places. Museums are using AR to create tours, while guerrilla artists are using AR to create alternative museum tours, and brands are stepping into AR to let customers try products virtually before they buy. IKEA Place allows shoppers to see virtual furniture in their homes. L’Oreal’s Makeup Genius app lets consumers test makeup on their selfies, and Artsy is using AR so prospective buyers can experience art on their walls before they make a purchase.

This summer AR is likely to reach an even bigger mass audience with Justin Timberlake’s new album, which includes an app that will bring him into users’ living rooms to discuss his work and allow fans to virtually explore the setting of one of his songs.

The tech for developing AR is also changing quickly, offering more opportunities for non-technical creatives to jump in. “Our goal at Adobe right now, as developers of tools, is to make the collective AR hallucination feel as real as possible,” says Stefano. “The more real it feels and looks, with amazing rendering and materials and lighting, the more we’ll enable artists and storytellers to show us the future — to create work that immerses us in new realities.”

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