Fine arts researcher explores ‘augmented reality’

Caitlin Fisher

While virtual reality (VR) technology immerses viewers in computer-generated environments, the new frontier of augmented reality (AR) merges these simulated environments with the real world. However, despite the fact that AR has been used in industry for some time, not much is known about its potential for use in the art or entertainment industries, a shortcoming currently being addressed by Caitlin Fisher, professor in York’s Department of Film & Video in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Right: Caitlin Fisher in the laboratory

Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture, Fisher is applying film and media studies as well as literary theory to help realize and document the artistic and dramatic possibilities of AR technology.

To experience AR, a person wears goggles that superimpose computer-simulated graphics over a normal view of reality. For example, wearing such goggles, a person could walk through a museum and, with the help of tracking equipment that monitors head position, be presented with graphics that draw attention to exhibits. In another application, AR narratives would enable people to move through real-world locations while computer graphics appear before their eyes, transforming existing environments into narrative spaces, immersing viewers in a kind of interactive story.

“But because AR is a relatively new technology,” explains Fisher, “we don’t know a lot about its potential as an artistic medium.”

“We are at a moment in this new medium similar to the earliest moments in narrative film at the turn of the previous century,” says David Bolter, Fisher’s collaborator at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.

With help from Bolter, Fisher hopes to discover and test some of the conventions of this new medium. An artist as well as a scholar, Fisher is developing her own AR narratives that people will be able to enter, enabling her to determine which conventions work and which don’t.

“It’s exciting,” says Fisher, whose hypermedia novella, These Waves of Girls, won the 2001 International Electronic Literature Award for Fiction. “By exploring this new medium we’re essentially helping to create it.”

Georgia Tech researchers have made this exploration easier by developing software that more readily enables the creation of AR content. As a result, artists and scholars without an extensive background in programming will be able to create their own augmented realities. In the process, they will be helping to create a vocabulary of artistic and dramatic conventions for the medium.

“It’s a great interdisciplinary collaboration,” Fisher stresses. “York’s strength in fine arts and Georgia Tech’s strength in developing this technology have really complemented each other well.”

Fisher also looks forward to new collaborations through the development of culture and entertainment research as a strategic priority for York. “Collaboration is about more than just working on a single project with someone,” she observes. “It’s also about building and sharing creative spaces, being able to bounce ideas off colleagues across the hall.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, research assistant in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.