Conferences Libraries

Augmented Reality Hackfest Report from Code4Lib Midwest

Here’s the report on the discussion and experimentation session that my group had at Code4Lib Midwest about augmented reality applications. In my group were Erin Fisher and Kyle Felker of Grand Valley State University and Megan O’Neill of Albion College. We were interested in what augmented reality could do for marketing, public services, instruction, and other public areas of the library, and how it intersects with gamification.
We were not so interested in actually programming any augmented reality applications, but rather seeing what is available to the average consumer or library and whether it solves the problems inherent in QR codes. We defined these problems as follows: you have to know ahead of time what a QR code is to use it, you have to have the application to read it installed on your mobile device, and you have to have the ability to reach the internet with your device, which assumes cell coverage and/or wifi. For people who have all those in place, there are some additional problems of appropriate use.
We determined that for augmented reality to be truly useful to the average person, it should have the following features:  it should provide an answer to a real need rather than simply trying to sell something, and should ideally answer that need right away rather than sending you to another website to find the answer. We also discussed the concept of a “subculture” aspect to these sorts of applications–for instance people sharing uncensored information about public locations or institutions that only the ones with access to the app have. But we struggled with what sort of information or services libraries have that fit into this mold. We do, after all, freely give away everything we have. What do we have that people really need and want? This ended up being a rather depressing line of conversation. One of the conclusions we drew that was less depressing was that not everything has to have an educational or information literacy increasing point. For instance, the fairy doors in Ann Arbor (can we talk about how wonderfully late 90s this site is?) include one at the Ann Arbor District library. This was a kind of goofy and whimsical thing that wasn’t explained in advance, but people started to catch on and wanted to find all the fairy doors in town. It gets people into locations they might not have visited otherwise, but doesn’t feel like it has an ulterior motive.
In libraries, we felt that there were a few obvious useful applications for augmented reality. First, wayfinding through large buildings is always helpful, though none of us work in buildings so large that this seemed useful. But we recalled our days in library school, where after two years working in the University of Illinois Main Library there were still plenty of unknown and unfindable corners. Certainly some quiet and creepy corners of the Main Stacks had a subculture aspect to them. How to do this is another matter entirely. GPS doesn’t necessarily work down to the foot like might happen with finding a book. Once upon a time you could use wireless access points to triangulate someone’s position. But according to some people I talked to there, this really doesn’t work anymore because wireless networks saturate areas so heavily you couldn’t pinpoint where someone was.
We also talked extensively about the concept of bridging the physical with the digital. While it may seem counter-intuitive, we could all offer examples of students finding their way to a physical space within the library without having any concept that they had access to many more digital resources. Finding a book on the shelf had an easy to imagine trajectory that wasn’t overwhelming–if augmented reality could offer a similar experience it could make the research experience more palatable. And of course, if it’s fun in itself, that’s even better. The University of Rochester’s Just Press Play is an example of something that does this very well. Another example was the fairly recent promotion of Jay-Z’s book using Bing, where people could “visit” the physical world virtually through Bing maps, and also use a mobile device to actually visit the places and see the digital content. This was a really well done and smart promotion that was very popular. But it was also wildly expensive, so while it might provide some inspiration, we can’t do it in libraries.
One of the promises of QR codes (and if you remember the CueCat you know this is going back awhile) is making print interactive. We discussed the Wonderbook, which is an odd hybrid between augmented reality toy, video game, and book. Personally if I played video games I could see something like that being attractive to me, but not something I would  use otherwise. We discussed (and played around with) a lot of tools which make print or other physical objects do something interesting when you take a picture of them. But these have all the same problems that QR codes have: you have to have the right app, you have to know where to look, and you have to care enough to try to look. One of the ones we looked at could make a topless lady appear–sure, that might make you want to look, but perhaps less than appropriate for library wayfinding.

The main tools we played around with or researched include:

  • Layar (propietary; iOS and Android)
  • Aurasma (proprietary; iOS and Android)
  • mixAIRE (open source; iOS and Android)
  • ARIS (open source; iOS)
  • Argon (open source; iOS)

These didn’t always work perfectly on all our devices (we all had iOS devices but of varying ages and capabilities)–in particular the open source seemed to require many dependencies and not be as immediately useful. And basically all we ended up with were the ability to embed URLs or videos on magazines or other physical objects. It was fun, but ultimately didn’t seem to solve any of the problems we hoped that it would. Still, something learned.

 Last but certainly not least, we would like to introduce you to the extremely important concepts of boozy popsicles and putting fruit such as blueberries and pineapple in lemon-lime pop (Diet 7-Up or Sprite, for instance). Once you have these things, the larger problems of the world tend to recede.
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