Saturday, November 19, 2011

The New Hyperreality

Back in the 80s, postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco introduced the term hyperreality to refer to our ability to create simulations that go beyond imitation to become more real than real, copies without originals to refer to (so that they are not actually copies of anything), maps that contain more than any territory (to touch upon the favorite metaphor of general semantics), artificial products of artifice that we then try to remake the real world in the image of (oh, that sounded a bit awkward, didn't it?).  The preeminent example was Disneyland, where Main Street USA constituted an archetype born out of a cliché, to use one of McLuhan's lesser known oppositions (i.e., From Cliché to Archetype).

To be frank, what the postmodernists meant by hyperreality had been earlier expressed with less hyperbole, and much more clarity, by Daniel Boorstin in his classic work, The Image, especially in regard to Boorstin's discussion of pseudo-events.  To some extent, the idea can be traced back even further to Walter Benjamin's classic essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (originally in German, reproduced in English translation in Illuminations, and more recently in a new translation in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media), which Boorstin draws upon in The Image

Postmodernist hyperreality was pure theory, a form of Continental cultural theory to be exact, but it had its parallels in computing as a form of simulation, for example in ideas about artificial intelligence.  In the 1982 film Blade Runner, the android replicants are described as more human than human, although in the movie they appear to be the product of biotechnology rather than silicon engineering.  But the notion of hyperreality also dovetailed nicely with the  the concept of virtual reality that became a popular obsession for a while back in the early 90s, and Baudrillard's famous work in this area, Simularcra and Simulation, inspired and actually appears as a book on Neo's shelf in the 1999 film, The Matrix (although Baudrillard felt the filmmakers did not understand what his work was really about).

Back in the real world, the fit with hyperreality was a bit awkward, because virtual reality was not more real than real, given the state of computer graphics back then.  And even now. On the other hand, the expanded concept of virtuality gets at the fact that the human imagination allows us to experience any simulation as virtually real, even one composed only of words.  What is a novel, after all, if not a simulation of reality?  What is fiction if not a simulation of real life?  What is a story, if not a simulation of a sequence of events?

But all this has to do with the old hyperreality.  So, what then is the new hyperreality, you might ask?  And I'm glad you did.  Rather than use hyper in the sense of more real than real, I want to suggest a new meaning of hyperreality as reality plus (to play off of the Google+ formation).  Like hypercube and hyperspace, I want to talk about reality with an added dimension.  And like hypertext, hypermedia, and especially hyperlinks, I want to refer to reality that is networked and connected, that has an overlay of data and interactivity.

But ok, I'm not talking about anything entirely new here. I'm just saying that the term hyperreality would be a useful one to use in reference, not to virtual reality, but to the more modest phenomenon of augmented reality.

Augmented reality is nothing new, if you've been into new media for a while now, and it's becoming increasingly more a part of our popular culture.  I mentioned it in a previous post Ad-ding Interactivity, and here's a news segment from New Zealand, circa 2007, on AR:

I find the augmented books a bit pointless, I mean, why do you need a book at all with this technology?  But here's a more practical use from 2009, involving a cellphone app called Layar:

As you can see, the cellphone here is not even very sophisticated, compared to our current batch of smartphones.  But it's very nice if you're looking for a new place to live, or in need of some other form of guidance as you move through a particular geographical location.  The key, obviously, is the combination of mobile devices and geolocation.  Anyway, now here is the new Layar video from earlier this year:

It certainly sounds very exciting, and I can only imagine that there will be a great need for media producers to provide content for this new medium.  

Now, it is not my intent here to ignore the criticism that folks dazzled by this new hyperreality may lose sight of our everyday, unaugmented reality.  The postmodernists who introduced hyperrealtiy in the old sense were not necessarily celebrating the phenomenon--mostly they were not.  And when it comes to new technologies and media such as AR, there will always be negative effects, drawback, side effects, blowback, no question about it.  It's a cause for concern, especially as we move away from mobile phones that have to be held up to our eyes, and replace them with glasses or goggles that we look through at all times--believe me, that's the obvious next step.  But my aim in this post is to understand the phenomenon of AR and the new hyperreality, and I will leave the critical evaluation for another time.

One use that the Layar folks mention is tourism, and here's a rather dramatic way in which reality and fiction, new media and old media, the scenic and cinematic can merge:

The Augmented Reality Cinema app looks to be very entertaining, and this facet of tourism, going to visit places you've already seen in the movies or TV, has been going on for decades now, with increasing interest.  But for a much more practical approach, here's a 2007 video from BMW utilizing those goggles I mentioned before:

Goggles are a feature of classic virtual reality technology, of course, but in VR the goggle obscure the outside world and only show you the simulation, whereas in AR the whole point is to let you see the world, and provide an overlay on top of it.  It's pretty much the equivalent of McLuhan's light on vs. light through distinction.

And how often have you struggled with a poorly written and poorly illustrated printed manual or set of instructions?  How often have you looked at a diagram showing how to put something together, and wondered which end of the rod they're referring to, or whether one part is supposed to go in front of or behind another?  This takes the longstanding practice of technical writing into a new realm of technical media, and provides us with a truly functional expert system, one that goes beyond knowledge to know-how, and how-to.  Definitely a plus, however you look at it.

So, the new hyperreality is certainly a way to get attention in the world of marketing and promotion.  My colleague, Ed Wachtel, recently brought to my attention this campaign from St. Petersburg/Clearwater.  Here's a video of it:

But you can check it out for yourself by going to their website (click there or here), and following the instructions to print out the Augmented Reality marker and then go to the page for the hyperreal tour.

Or you can just go to Starbucks, provided you download the appropriate mobile app--this was brought to my attention by Holly Lemanowicz, one of the students in my Introduction to New Media class at Fordham University:

Much more ambitious and stunning, albeit a tad sexist, is this use of AR in the promotion of Axe deodorant body spray, known as Lynx in Great Britain, and thanks to another of my students, Stephanie Diller, who actually experienced this AR when she was studying abroad in England this past spring semester.  The location is Victoria Station in London, and here it is not the small screen of the computer monitor, or the very small screen of the cellphone, but the jumbo display where the hyperreality is seen:

But when it comes to taking the new hyperreality to the next level, who better than the folks most often associated with hyperreality in the 80s, Disney!  It was another of my Intro to New Media students, Alyssa Marino, who brought this one up.  First, here's Disney's official, slick video on the ambitious AR event that occurred over the past few days over at nearby Time Square:

And another, more naturalistic short recording:

And one that's a bit longer, not as good a view, but providing a much better sense of how it all worked:

Disney went further than anyone in operationalizing the older virtual reality kind of simulations in their DisneyQuest Interactive Theme Park, so it's not surprising to see them surpassing everyone else in regard to augmented reality.  They truly are the masters of hyperreality, and every student of media should spend some time at WaltDisneyWorld in particular to truly understand the potential of the hyperreal, and media as environments.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Everywhere a Sign, we previously used the written word to create a kind of overlay on top of our environment, largely through the use of signage, and we are now in the process of creating an electronic overlay.  More than ever before, we are living in a media environment, and that's why, more than ever before, we need media ecology, the study of media environments, to make sense of it all.

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