The Poetics of Augmented Space by Lev Manovich – Gamer movie


Lev Manovich

Augmentation and Monitoring


The 1990s were about the virtual. We were fascinated by the new virtual spaces made possible by computer technologies. Images of an escape into a virtual space that  leaves -physical space useless, and of cyberspace – a virtual world that exists in parallel to our world – dominated the decade. This phenomenon started with the media obsession with Virtual Reality (VR). In the middle of the decade graphical browsers for the World Wide Web made cyberspace a reality for millions of users. During the second part of the 1990s, yet another virtual phenomenon – dot coms – rose to prominence, only to  crash in the real-world laws of economics. By the end of the decade, the daily dose of cyberspace (using the Internet to make plane reservations, check e-mail using a Hotmail account, or download MP3 files) became so much the norm  that the original wonder of cyberspace  so present in the early cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s and still evident in the original manifestos of VRML evangelists of the early 1990s – was almost completely lost. The virtual became domesticated. Filled with advertisements and controlled by big brands, it was rendered harmless. In short, to use Norman Klein’s expression , it became an “electronic suburb.”

Augmentation and Immersion


I derived the term “augmented space” from the already established term “augmented reality” (AR). Coined around 1990, the concept of “augmented reality” is normally opposed to “virtual reality” (VR). in the case of VR, the user works on a virtual simulation,  in the case of AR, she works on actual things in actual space. Because of this, a typical VR system presents a user with a virtual space that has nothing to do with that user’s immediate physical space; while, in contrast, a typical AR system adds information that is directly related to  the user’s immediate physical space.

But we don’t necessarily have to think of immersion in the virtual and augmentation of the physical as opposites. On one level, whether we think of a particular situation as immersion or augmentation is simply a matter of scale – i.e. the relative size of a display. When you are watching a movie in a movie theatre or on big TV monitor, or when you are playing a computer game on a game console that is connected to the TV, you are hardly aware of your physical surroundings. Practically speaking, you are immersed in virtual reality. But when you watch the same movie, or play the same game, on  the small display of a cell phone  or PDA that fits in your hand, then the experience is different. You are still largely present in physical space, and while the display adds to your overall phenomenological experience, it does not take over. So, whether we should understand a particular situation in terms of immersion or augmentation depends on how we understand the idea of addition: we may add new information to our experience – or we may add an altogether different experience.

“Augmented space” may bring associations with one of the founding ideas of computer culture: Douglas Engelbardt’s concept of a computer augmenting human intellect that wasarticulated 40 years ago. The association is appropriate, but we also need to be aware of the differences . For the vision of Engelbardt, and the related visions of Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, assumed a stationary user – a scientist or engineer at work in his office. Revolutionary for the time, these ideas anticipated the paradigm of desktop computing. Today, however, we are gradually moving into the next paradigm, one in which computing and telecommunication capacities  are delivered to a mobile user. Thus, augmenting the human also comes to mean augmenting the whole space in which she lives, or through which she passes.

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~ door ilseleysen op 29/09/2009.

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