Augmenting your way through walls (and other applications)

On: October 31, 2009
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About Charlotte Hendriks
Now a Bachelor of Arts, Charlotte has mainly focused on new media throughout her academic career. At the University of Amsterdam she started the Media & Culture BA in 2006 and earned the degree mid 2009. Apart from studying New Media, she also focused on Art History, Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies. This year she is aiming to earn my Master Degree in New Media, also at the University of Amsterdam.


Our world today becomes more and more penetrated by screens. Wherever we go, information is made available through dynamic surfaces, which can adapt to whichever piece of information that is relevant at that specific time and place. More than static objects like posters, these interactive screens can deliver information in real time and allow their users to be fully up to date at all times. Think of railway stations or airports and one can understand the value of a constant stream of data available to the traveller; when for instant a platform of departure changes, the traveller can be made aware of this fact faster and less time is lost which aids both the traveller as well as the railway service.

These screens then become an important part of our everyday reality. Researchers have already been looking into this phenomenon for a while, since the introduction of these new dynamics make for a faster and more informed citizen. Lev Manovich for instance has written important work on augmented reality, and defines the term ‘augmented reality’ as “the physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information. This information is likely to be in multimedia form and it is often localized for each user”. (Manovich, 2005) This then is exactly the changed reality as I described above; our world becomes undeniably connected and augmented.

The new information layers have different implications, and are at work on different levels. Manovich describes three applications of augmented space in this time and age:

  1. Video surveillance: everywhere we see the rise of CCTV applications, which can be employed by every individual.
  2. Cell space technologies: “physical space that is “filled” with data, which can be retrieved by a user via a personal communication device.” (Manovich, 2005)
  3. Computer / video displays: “these displays are gradually becoming larger and thinner; they are no longer confined to flat surfaces; they no longer require darkness to be visible.” (Manovich, 2005)

These three applications then are the three categories in which one can now place current augmented objects. Manovich himself puts an emphasis of the augmentation of architecture, and sees lots of opportunities for architects to make their buildings interactive. Such buildings with this extra layer of information can be even more worth for their users and visitors. Manovich names the Prada Store by Rem Koolhaas, which was realized in 2002 as the perfect example of an augmented building not only by the strategic use of screens, but by having the use of the building (selling Prada clothes) constantly at the first place. The screens contain information such as images from fashion shows or origins from the garments on display. This kind of use of screens in buildings can also be valuable applied to for instance museums or art galleries, something Manovich also calls for as it adds value to the art that is exhibited. These screens then are an example of the third category of augmented spaces.

The second category, that of cell space technologies, does not need an elaborate example to clarify what these technologies exactly are. Presumably the most widely accepted example of augmented space, cell space technologies entail for instance mobile phones and PDA’s. These technologies enable their users to be up to date at all times.

The first category, that of video surveillance, in my opinion always had a slightly negative ring to it. Surveillance is widely used to enhance security, but also means a loss of privacy for normal citizens who happen to be in range of the camera. And it are not only cameras performing surveillance; all kinds of chip cards make users traceable for the controlling agency to whom the card service belongs. American researchers have come up with a new application of this kind of augmented space though, one which does actually have an added value for the normal citizens who is normally on the other end of surveillance. This application makes it possible for its user to actually look through walls, which can make traffic significantly safer, since it enables the driver to look and think ahead and thus avoid accidents

This application can in fact be seen as an example of the first category of augmented space as well as the third category, and as such crosses the boundaries of Manovich’ definition of augmented space. Physical space overlaid with dynamical data is an up and coming phenomenon that has the potential to be applied to many more fields. It is only a matter of time before more initiatives like the augmented reality system that enables drivers to look through walls to take useful form.


Manovich, Lev. “The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada” (2002, updated 2005)

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