Augmented (hyper)Reality: An interview with Keiichi Matsuda
Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop, still, Keiichi Matsuda, 2009
by Greg J. Smith
Keiichi Matsuda is a multidisciplinary designer based in London and Tokyo who garnered widespread attention last year for Augmented (hyper)Reality, a speculative video series that explored near-future media environments. His short films Domestic Robocop and Augmented City 3D scrutinize how our experience of home and urban space might be radically transformed through ubiquitous access to information. These shorts are jam-packed with humour and imagination and they extend out of the thesis research on augmented space Keiichi executed while studying at the Barlett.
Although seemingly focusing on the wildest possibilities of augmented space, your thesis research is extremely invested in reconciling the tension between new media and customary notions of domesticity. You refer to Hilde Heynen’s assertion that “the traditional home is never completely absent from the modern home” and the ‘dislocation’ caused by media within domestic space, can you describe how these two ideas are central to your research?
You probably saw it in Domestic Robocop, but I enjoy the contrast of juxtaposing mind-blowing technology with the most everyday actions. Technology can change the way we do things very quickly, but is slower to impact on what we do.
In looking at the effect of technology on the city, I became interested in electronomadics (as described by William Mitchell). Electronomads are augmented beings – cyborgs able to appropriate space for their own means. Every time you use your cellphone, tablet or laptop, you are participating in electonomadics, and you are defying the architects and planners who designated a particular space to be used for a particular purpose. The emergence of mobile technology, wireless internet and the cloud have started to pull apart the traditional connection of programme to place, as we start individually applying functions to spaces. This is dislocation.
This dislocation is also occurring in the boundaries between work and home, exterior and interior, man and woman, public and private. The once-separate spheres of home and work are merging. My thesis charts the migration of domestic activities into the public sphere via the network, and argues that these domestic values are the ones that will come to define our experience of the city. Many people are probably already experiencing this, as their email address becomes more permanent than their postal address, Facebook becomes a site of refuge on a trip to an unfamiliar country and a twitter feed becomes a better expression of an individual’s identity than their bookshelf and living room decor.
It is strange to me that a lot of architecture is still geared around the ‘form follows function’ mantra, when the way spaces are used is increasingly flexible. We have been clinging to programme as a way to justify our designs for centuries, but all it takes to shatter our rationale is a kid with a Game Boy.
Regarding the intersection of home and work, Domestic Robocop clearly illustrates how daily self-preservation routines (cleaning, eating, etc.) can start to become more labour intensive once they become overloaded with superfluous information. The strangest thing about your videos is that your protagonists almost need wayfinding to navigate the claustrophobic hyper-mediate spaces you have created. With Augmented City 3D you tackled how the city could operate as a ‘mediascape’ – but what about the workplace? Do you have any thoughts on the future of labour and information overload?
The super-saturated environments that I depicted in the films are only suggestions as to how we may choose to view the augmented city, but I think that the protagonist/s would not feel that they were being overloaded, or that the process had become labour-intensive. While to us, these worlds may seem to contain too much information for conducting a single task, it’s possible that we are being old-fashioned in thinking that conducting a single task was ever the objective.
You have touched on an interesting point though; the augmented city is too vast and dense to be understood at once, so an important part of an Augmented Reality (AR) system is the way it limits information. I often use CAD applications and editing software that have too many toolbars, menus and windows to fit onto one screen, but it is possible to define ‘workspaces’ that temporarily limit the functionality of the software in order to focus on a specific task. An immersive interface may contain preset workspaces that emphasize certain data-sets and block others entirely; a ‘reading’ workspace may darken the surrounding environment, dampen noise, and only display urgent alerts. ‘Getting drunk’ workspaces may display special offers in nearby bars, user reviews of single malt whiskeys, and an array of social tools (and probably wayfinding as the evening progresses), while disabling adverts for detergent. It could even be possible to spatially simplify parts of the city, covering over alleyways and service access to buildings, or painting out electricity pylons and wind farms (if you don’t like how they look).
These workspaces could number in their thousands, and activate automatically as the system learns more about your routines and habits. If the interface can understand context, the user may not even have to search for the information they require, as the system knows that its Friday night after work and you’re looking to get your drink on. Companies could provide their own mandatory, branded workspaces that provide relevant information and tools to their employees. It would also be possible to limit information and communications that are non task-related, allowing workers to focus on their jobs, and give step-by-step instructions that allow unskilled workers to perform highly skilled tasks. It is the job of the designer to balance functionality with simplicity, and for me, this hierarchical representation of information is the essence of interface design.
Is there a dark side? Yes, and it’s huge. Corporate AR could turn every worker into a drone. Predictive systems (including Amazon’s suggestions and Google’s personalized search results) may cause people to increasingly become narrowcast stereotypes, and there is a potential for sinister behavioural control based on suggestion. Oppressive governments may use it to mask social problems and spread propaganda. We must tread carefully.
I’d like to jump back to your comments about the ability of a kid with a Game Boy to subvert an architectural programme. On that note, what are some other interfaces or game narratives that you think are in the same universe as Domestic Robocop. I can definitely see many parallels to information displays such as the biological metrics of The Sims or the perspectival in-game interfaces within Dead Space (screen capture above), are there any explicit gaming references at play in your work?
I’m a big admirer of games, not just in terms of creativity but also in terms of interface. First-person shooters in particular have been dealing with the human-environment interface for decades now, and have developed their own language for dealing with navigation and AR-like overlays. I didn’t intentionally add gaming references to Domestic Robocop, but it’s easy to see how they may have crept in; gaming is a hugely rich resource, and is among our best precedents for thinking about information environments. Gaming is also great because it is never afraid to embrace new technologies and challenge how people view it as a medium. It is the most unpretentious art form out there, probably because it is not widely accepted as one yet. This is probably a positive thing, but it’s a mystery to me why the great auteurs of gaming are not revered in the same way as the great auteurs of, for instance, film.
The world I established with Domestic Robocop views the city as a form of media, to be browsed, consumed, and contributed to. There are a lot of interesting conversations emerging around augmented reality as to how we can use our environment to create narratives; essentially how we can integrate our preconceived ideas of media with the augmented city. This is really exciting for me as a designer, as it is likely to lead to some entirely new and revolutionary forms of media, combining architecture, film-making, game design, and probably much more. Jesse Schell has made a number of inspiring presentations about the future of gaming in the presence of ubiquitous computing, and it would be interesting to take this further in a Domestic Robocop-type setting. I’d love to get involved with developing a game at some point, in order to start laying the groundwork for this future discipline.
Augmented (hyper)Reality: Augmented City 3D, still
The spaces depicted in Augmented City 3D and Domestic Robocop are overflowing with signs, graphics, icons, HUD tools and infographics. These elements float in air and mediate the relationship between the inhabitant and the space that surrounds them. To what degree is this vision you’re presenting hyperbolized? Not many people would describe this information oversaturation as desirable, should we read this work as pure speculation, satire or criticism?
The things that tend to interest me the most are those that arouse a kind of mixed feeling somewhere between excitement and terror. I wanted to create an architecture that has these qualities of intrigue and something spectacular, while exposing some of the darker currents I feel in the world today.
Domestic Robocop is a satire (which I don’t consider to be separate from speculation or criticism), where the super-saturated aesthetic was intended to visualize the noise of communication we deal with on a daily basis, and to highlight the intrusion of media into our lives and homes via technology. Augmented City is more exploratory, and caused me many more problems. Among other things, it raised some interesting questions for me about our concept of desirable, or ‘ideal’ space. AR affords the possibilities to transform the appearance of your surroundings into whatever you wish, so faced with these limitless possibilities, what would you choose? A tropical beach? A modern villa? What is ideal? What happens to our concept of desire in the absence of scarcity?
I found an answer by looking at the way we use the internet, particularly social networking. Although the internet can provide anonymity and the possibility to become anyone you want, this kind of fantasizing quickly loses its appeal for most people. What endure are the platforms anchored to meatspace and to personal relationships; imperfect, incomplete, and fraught with the problems of ‘real life’, but open, interactive, collaborative and always developing. It turns out that our ideal is not a complete utopian vision, but a reality with momentum.
That’s a difficult concept for an architect, as we are constantly striving for the perfect and final resolution to a problem, creating pockets of utopias in the city. A building appears to have a certain permanence about it, so we traditionally think and design without paying particular attention to the momentum of space. Working in time-based media is helping me to think of the city as a growing and changing organism, where the design of one of its spaces is not a static or permanent component, but a dynamic and temporary influence on its direction.
After I stopped designing utopias, things began to make more sense. I no longer needed to dictate the use of a space or impose my own idea of how people should occupy it. The aesthetic of the AR environments is the individual choice of the user, but I chose to represent a super-saturated world view as I consider it the most likely. I would not want to blinker my view of the augmented city, and would choose to fill my world with as much information as I could handle. If this seems strange, consider our obsession with social media, constant updates, feeds and ubiquitous connectivity.
We are also getting much better at this. Oversaturation is a relative term; the internet has given us a supercharged ability to filter and process information that would have been inconceivable (and maybe unbearable) even 20 years ago. As media and representation form greater parts of our lives, we have become very sophisticated in quickly decoding and understanding the abundance of content available to us, and our algorithms and brains will only continue to improve at this.
Augmented (hyper)Reality: Augmented City 3D, still
“Stop designing utopias and everything will make more sense” – that sounds like a rallying cry for spatial designers everywhere. On the topic of “the abundance of content available to us”, what architects and interaction designers do you think are currently producing work that is particularly attuned to this new ‘oversaturated’ urban landscape?
There’s an anti-utopian manifesto in me, waiting to be written! Yes, it’s vital for us designers to be aware of how people are engaging with the world in multiple ways and through multiple devices, often simultaneously. Our experience is now made up of sensory input from a huge number of sources—elements of the built environment, snatches of conversations, websites, advertising, games and apps—we build our own reality by assembling these incomplete fragments.
I wouldn’t say this is a new condition, but the one that fits into the postmodern world-view. I’ve been broadly influenced by postmodern writers such as Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson and Venturi/Scott Brown, but postmodern architecture is a bit disappointing for me. Now we have a virtual layer added to the city and mobile devices through which to access it, I feel that it is not architects or urban planners that are driving our experience of the city, but programmers and interaction designers. Conventional architecture is working hard to keep up as technology allows us to circumnavigate spatial logic; buildings now have to exist as signs, icons or postcards, or give up and become anonymous sheds and warehouses.
Interaction design is more interesting for me, as it takes information overload as the natural state. It is attuned to this new condition by definition, as has emerged as a response to ‘oversaturation’, or super-saturation. I’m new to the field, and the field itself is young, so I’m not aware if there are any superstar interaction designers that have emerged yet, but I think there is huge potential in this area.
Well, I don’t know about ‘rockstars’ but there are certainly vanguard interaction design practices (Dunne & Raby, BERG, etc.). That said, hopefully the discipline does not end up buying into a starchitect-like system, as that hierarchy certainly didn’t prove that productive within architecture, it merely inflated a few careers. Your point about how we “build our own reality” out of a constellation of media experiences is astute, however, I can’t help but wonder how we’ll reconcile our deeply personalized relationships with media and the rather conventional expectations we have of walls and surfaces, it is hard to know where ‘architecture’ will stop and ‘interaction design’ will begin. That point is a good segue into my final question: what kinds of projects do you anticipate you’ll be working on in 2011?
This increasing overlap between architecture and interaction is just the beginning of a massive period of change in our environment, which is the digitization of space. We already have many ways of extending physical space into the virtual realm, and these will continue to develop and be used to augment our world. In the long term, I’d like to be around to document and influence this process.
As for 2011, I graduated from my Masters in Architecture this summer, and I’m currently in the process of starting up a studio to handle commissions for video and visualization. So far we’ve been doing music videos and idents, with architectural and technology visualization projects on the way early next year. It’s definitely keeping me busy, and I learn a lot every day, so that’s great; our website should be live soon at chocobaby.jp.
I’m also aiming to continue with research and interaction, whether it be independently or otherwise. Either way, you will see a new Augmented (hyper)Reality short sometime next year, and some more written bits and pieces like Cities for Cyborgs. Everything goes on to the blog, so that’s probably a good place to tune into for more information.
Piece originally published at Serial Consign |