Augmented Reality & Social Interactions:
A Case Study on the Effects of
Location-based Augmented Reality Applications on Social Interactions
By Brennan Gamwell (bwg5)
Kathleen Sullivan (ks535)
Mary Krulia (msk52)
Jessica Lamb (jl658)
Sofia Sunaga (sys26)
CCT 505 | Section 6
November 24, 2009
A tourist in New York City is having trouble finding the nearest subway station. She pulls up an augmented reality “nearest subway” application that directs her toward the most accessible location.1
A real estate agent sees a commercial property for sale while passing by in a taxi. He quickly pulls out his Layar augmented reality application to get a snapshot of the property’s listing and the owner's contact information.2
A graduate student and her friends are hungry for the best Italian food around after working hard on a group case study project. She pulls up a Yelp augmented reality application on her phone to find the highest-rated restaurant in the area.3
These scenarios demonstrate how location-based augmented reality (LBAR) mobile phone applications are being used today to help people find information about their surroundings in real time. These information overlays are presented virtually through mobile phone technology that utilizes the phone’s GPS location as well as the device's digital compass to retrieve information about the user’s surroundings. The camera function on mobile phones allows users to see information about their surroundings overlayed on screen in a grid-like fashion on top of real-world environments.
In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) Marshall McLuhan argues that communication technology affects cognitive organization, which in turn has profound ramifications for social organization. Following this logic, augmented reality technology could also lead to profound ramifications for social organization. The transposition of information gathering onto real-time, virtual platforms could have broad social consequences.
This proposal will attempt to investigate precisely this question: How will location-based augmented reality applications on mobile devices affect social interactions? In order to pinpoint possible answers, we propose an interdisciplinary study through the lens of two divergent but mutually informing perspectives—communications and sociology—in which quantitative data will be drawn from information gathered through a communicative approach and qualitative data will be drawn from information gathered through a sociological approach. While it is expected that varying answers arise, such an analysis will afford researchers a comprehensive picture of data gleaned from the proposed case study, and will provide an even greater wealth of raw information from which to draw conclusions.
LBAR and the City
To gather data regarding use of augmented reality in social spaces, we have decided to go into the production business by launching the hottest new reality television show around: LBAR and the City.
In a series reminiscent of the CBS hit show The Amazing Race, LBAR and the City will bring to New York thirty randomly selected individuals—but there's a catch. Competitors will be from diverse geographic and socio-economic background and first-time visitors to New York City.
Competitors will come from different age groups, and all of them will be iPhone users; half of the competitors will be men, and the other half will be women. While each player will be given an iPhone with identical augmented reality capabilities, competitors are not allowed to use the Internet.
Players will be given specific tasks to complete, but it is up to them whether they decide to engage with bystanders face-to-face, or use their augmented reality applications to find the answers. As an incentive, there will be a single cash prize, which is split evenly in the event a group wins the competition. Tasks assigned to participants will stimulate the use of the LBAR applications, but such use will not be mandatory to complete them. Some examples of such tasks are:
Find the best apple pie in town
Find the oldest person in town
Find the longest staircase in the subway system
Throughout the competition, quantitative and qualitative data will be gathered from the iPhones: use rate of each applications, pictures and short movies players could be making, etc. Also, interviews will be made after the game assessing choices made and level of face-to-face interaction, interaction facilitated by augmented reality application. Some competitors may choose not to interact with other whatsoever.
Communications is a broad field that encompasses both the ways in which we communicate with others and the interpretation of that communication. Such an approach—through which we propose to gather solely quantitative data—provides the basis for the following questions in relation to the LBAR scenario:
In what specific situations do people activate their LBAR applications?
Will players interpret the LBAR data differently than if a human (or email, or text, or newspaper, or book, or Web site) communicated the same data? If so, how do we quantify this?
What LBAR results do players click on most frequently? What applications do they activate most frequently?
What ratio of players choose LBAR applications rather than asking other, available people?
In the conclusion of his book Understanding New Media Kim Veltman (2006) lists 5 major consequences of new media: invisibility, virtuality, systemicity, contextuality and spirituality. From these concepts, the one what seemed to speak directly to our LBAR study was the idea of virtuality. In Veltman's words (p. 336):
(...) the material consequence of computers is virtuality: a possibility of creating virtual equivalents for everything in the physical world. In rare cases they will replace the physical original. In many cases they will not. (...)
Following Veltman's perspective, LBAR would be a potential (but not certain) virtual substitute for communication exchanges revolving around inquiries on locations and suggestion of places worth visiting/knowing/avoiding. Will users prefer to follow instructions given by a technological artifact or will they prefer a face-to-face human explanation/recommendation? Which of the sources would be considered more reliable? Which source would be preferred and in which situations?
In order to answer the questions identified above, we propose a survey for LBAR users in the game, consisting of multiple choice, true/false, and ranking questions. Fill-in answers draw out to a great extent purely emotional information based on game scenarios rather than quantitative data, and are hence useless within the current framework. Secondly, we would use statistical data from open sources and perhaps from the mobile phone companies or LBAR application developers themselves. Thirdly, we would use a content analysis by viewing specific user queries within LBAR applications.
The first major gap in exploring this research context is that, due to LBAR's slow adoption rate and availability, it is hard to find a useful sample set that will provide accurate data on LBAR's effect on interpersonal communication. Secondly, a purely quantitative approach to this problem would perhaps overlook the value in a more humanistic approach, which would consider LBAR users' own opinions and feelings on the technology and perhaps answer the “why” questions.
In this section we will analyze how sociology looks at the issue of location-based augmented reality (LBAR) based on the posited scenario—in other words, our goal is to answer the “why” question that is otherwise overlooked in a purely disciplinary approach. To begin gathering qualitative data, it is useful to provide a brief definition of sociology and its scope: sociology is the science of society and focuses on the study of interaction and collective behavior in groups of people, as well as collective behavior as influenced by institutions. Hence, sociology provides an interesting lens through which to study of the effects of LBAR on specific groups of individuals as well as the influence institutions (such as LBAR providers) could have on those groups. Some of the questions we then pose are:
With constant access to maps, directions and references/recommendations to specific places, how will LBAR affect users’ social interactions as compared to non-users?
How will LBAR influence the formation of groups around a specific task/space?
How will the use of LBAR affect users' selection of spaces to explore/visit?
How will LBAR affect users’ perception of listed versus unlisted spaces in LBAR applications?
In the final chapter of her book Always On (2008), Naomi Baron provides a number of findings of studies assessing the impact of mobile phones and Internet use in the social lives of subjects. Varying greatly on their results, no clear conclusion seems to encompass all the studies presented. However, Baron still proposes a very interesting perspective (p. 226):
How much of the blame for personal, cognitive, and social change associated with new language tools really can be laid at the feet of the technologies themselves? In many instances, we need to ask which came first: the technological development or changes in social practice
This last inquiry is the one that interested us the most. Would LBAR have a different effect on people’s social interactions, or would it simply reinforce social practices that have long been established? In order to approach the above mentioned questions and considering Baron's inquiry, a series of qualitative interviews will provide more in-depth information about the contacts made by the participants, their motivations behind the use (or not) of the technology as well as the reasons behind individual and group choices. Also, a study of the footage taken during the competition could provide valuable information regarding social interactions and the use of LBAR technology. Analyzing both the data provided by the interviews and the scenes filmed during the competition, a qualitative, textual representation of results will be made possible.
As with all academic approaches, research gaps become evident. Here, purely qualitative data charts emotional, gut reactions (what Mark Stoner calls “the state of one's glands”) from which we may draw fascinating conclusions regarding individual effects of AR. Nonetheless, this approach leaves little statistical data from which to extrapolate predictions regarding large-scale consequences of the technology.
Preliminary Findings and Popular Literature
An interdisciplinary approach to exploring the effects of social interaction with location-based augmented reality (LBAR) applications will provide varying answers. It also may conflict with raw data. Researchers should be cautious of placing value judgments on different perspectives as well. If, for example, sociologists use media richness to support their claims, they could deem LBAR a detriment to social interaction for specific groups of individuals, whereas communication scholars may simultaneously proclaim the use of LBAR applications as a vehicle by which social interaction is improved.
Popular literature has tended to vaunt the use of augmented reality. Articles used in this study explore the technical aspects and restrictions of augmented reality, and also provide examples of possible uses for the new technology. In most sources, smart phones are the common technological device through which the use of LBAR was illustrated. Some other AR examples are given through the use of computers and a gadget (still in development) that would allow the projection of AR information onto common physical objects such as walls, books, hands, and even people. All articles have an overall positive approach to the subject and that can be explained in part to the fact that some of them advertise their augmented reality services. Positive points highlighted are: (1) AR is an improvement from virtual reality since it is more accessible (mobile, cheaper) and useful; (2) wide possibilities of illustrating printed media and creating an extra layer of content that would enrich the reading experience, blurring boundaries between “old media” and “new media”; (3) overall convenience of the new technology since it can provide access to several “layers” of information on a real time, on the spot manner. Some negative points raised about the adoption of AR were: (1) privacy issues; (2) lack of accuracy due to the still “crude” technology; (3) questioning of actual feasibility of AR development and deployment to consumer markets (need to build an audience for the new technology).
Since LBAR applications have not become mainstream, we lack expert opinions and sufficient data for a complete analysis. For the current research, however, we can draw a wealth of information from our interview respondents, a group a tech-savvy young professionals, all between the ages of 20 and 40. We asked them the following questions about AR's effect on social interactions and presence:
If we are more easily able to find information about things and people around us, how do you think that might change the way we interact with people when we rely more and more on computers to deliver information we used to rely on people for?
Do you think that easier access to information will help or hinder meaningful social interactions?
Will it create a bigger gap between people who can leverage virtual communications to widen their social network and those who are more reclusive?
Do you think AR is more likely to expand or shrink the majority of people’s social networks?
Preliminary responses indicate that AR could have both positive and negative influences on social interaction. Some predict there will be no influence at all. Those who predict positive influences also note drawbacks in the technology. One interview respondent believes AR allows us to know and interact with substantially more people. He said that AR is limiting, however, because some things (feel, smell, etc.) are impossible to know relying solely on technology. He used a building as a metaphor: Everyone we know is the ground floor of an office building. An additional floor on top of our close friends represents a unique detail we know about that person. Because technology allows us to connect with such a wide range of people, our base floors now are much bigger than they may have been years ago. However, the height of our buildings is limited: we know more people, but in a less intimate or friendly way. He thinks that more people will use AR in the future, but as long as people are in control over what is posted, the information will be as diverse as the people themselves.
Similarly, an interview respondent from a Twitter canvass for opinion's on AR believes AR will increase social interaction. This subject believes LBAR makes the outdoors as exciting as the Internet. Alternatively, we will be able to “erase” people from our sight, therefore making us less social. The Senior Developer for an AR application company—AcrossAir—commented in responses that AR itself does not influence social interaction. Rather, the importance lies on the geographic information via social networks. Sharing location-based information, in her opinion, could lead to the development of newer communities.
Other interview respondents provided negative responses to our questions. One claimed that AR will make social interactions "more clumsy." Another respondent worries that AR will hinder meaningful social interaction. She believes that AR will create a larger gap between people who want to widen their social network and those that are more reclusive. Finally, she thinks that AR is likely to expand people’s virtual networks but shrink human-to-human interaction.
While these opinions contain opposite views about AR, some interview respondents believe AR will not have a significant influence on social interaction. A self-titled "hobbyist" who started a Twitter feed ("@augmented") postulated effects this new technology could have in the future: "Augmented reality is nowhere near changing our social interactions (though, I'm a known skeptic), and we may need to wait until 2020 to see any real effect." He predicts that AR will be a "communication revolution" similar to the rise of mobile phones and social networks, remarking that depending on the user, there will be both "good" and "bad" impacts on social interactions: reclusive people will become more reclusive, while outgoing people will use AR to expand their networks.
Based on our research plan, it is clear that any preliminary answers to assess our research methods are predictions, albeit provocative ones. Conducting the interviews alone does not provide a sufficient supply of data since the responses represent myriad and divergent opinions. It is too early to gauge the implications LBAR will have on social presence. Some overarching themes which emerged in our research include:
AR allows users to know and interact with more people
Social presence effects depend on the user's offline personality and the way the user applies the technology
AR expands social networks
We look forward to continued research in the field and eagerly await expanded consumer access to AR products, as well as production of LBAR and the City.
AcrossAir subway application. .
Baron, Naomi. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Caudell, T. P.. Introduction to Augmented Reality. SPIE Proceedings Vol. 2351: Telemanipulator and Telepresence Technologies. 1994.
Feiner, S., H. Fuchs, et al. Mixed Reality: Where Real and Virtual Worlds Meet. Panel for ACM SIGGRAPH’99 Conference, Los Angeles, CA, 1999.
Layar AR browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b64_16K2e08
McLuhan, Marhsall. Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.
Stoner, Mark and Sally Perkins. Making Sense of Messages: A Critical Apprenticeship in Rhetorical Criticism. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2004.
Sutter, John. “New phone apps seeks to 'augment reality.'” .
Tanneeru, Manav. “A new way of looking at the world.” .
Twitter List of A.R. People. .
Veltman, Kim. Understanding New Media. 2006.