Augmented reality fiction

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2010

augmented reality headset conceptHere’s another option to add to the list of new avenues for fiction writers worried about the possible demise of the novel – augmented reality fiction, as (quite literally) dreamed by Web2.0 maven Tim O’Reilly [via @globalculture; image by The Lightworks]:

Last night I dreamed that one of my authors (no name or face that I can recall – one of the phantasms created by the half-waking imagination) had sold me rights to a novel he’d written, and was eager for me to publish it as an ebook. It turned out that the “ebook” we were developing was actually a movie that took place in an augmented reality overlay projected directly onto the mind’s eye, mixing what the author had imagined with what the viewer was actually seeing and experiencing at the time. Every version of the movie was different, because the story had to be overlaid on what the viewer was encountering in the real world. At one point in the dream, Eric Schmidt of Google was particularly excited because a sailing scene in the story warned him about a hidden reef that his boat had to avoid.

I don’t often share dreams on this blog (at least not sleeping dreams), but this one seemed worth putting out there, because I do think that augmented reality could be an important component of a new kind of storytelling, making today’s 3D entertainments as dated as silent films.

[I guess you have to move in pretty rarefied circles to have Google’s CEO appear in your dreams…either that, or have the sort of extreme tech fetish that warrants medical attention.]

I very much doubt that O’Reilly’s the first to think of AR fiction, but having someone that influential kicking the idea around in public can only be a good thing; the dead-tree book may have a finite lifespan ahead of it, but storytelling will probably last as long as humanity itself, in one form or another.

O’Reilly continues with an anecdote about an intriguing format for theatre he once experienced, which (more so than the AR fiction idea alone) threw all sorts of interesting switches in my head:

Many years ago, I saw a play in LA called Tamara, a story set in the mansion where WWI hero and author Gabrielle D’Annunzio was held under house arrest by Mussolini. A fascinating experiment in theater, Tamara took place in many different rooms of the house. As an audience member, whenever a scene ended, you had an opportunity to follow the character of your choice to another room. No audience member could see the entire play. My wife and I went with her parents (who were back for the third or fourth time, seeing parts of the play they’d missed on previous visits), and afterwards, we all compared notes for hours about what we’d seen, and what we’d missed.

Now that’s an interesting idea… not to mention a neat way of making history a more immersive and interesting experience. Someone needs to start pitching that structure to the museums-and-stately-homes sector… *reaches for rolodex*

Of course, the layered nature of augmented reality means that there’s all sorts of potential for weird and unforeseen overlaps and mash-ups – it’s easy to think of ways to add a game component to that immersive theatre idea, for example. But there’s nothing that says you have to get permission to mesh your game with another layer. Let’s say that someone makes an AR guide to Victorian-era London, for instance; it’d be pretty easy for someone to independently develop an extra layer that threaded in a Sherlock Holmes-esque game element to the proceedings. But just think of the IP headaches that sort of mash-up is going to produce – if you develop a game on top of a free-to-view ad-supported AR layer, should you have to pay the creators of that layer? Or should the extra traffic you’re sending to it be considered payment enough? That sound you hear is the hands of a thousand lawyers rubbing together in glee…

And let’s not forget that all games can and will be gamed – for instance, you’ve probably heard of FourSquare by now (if not signed up already), but that casual geolocational contest is easily fiddled, as demonstrated by one Jim “KrazyDad” Bumgardner [via @qwghlm]. Games that are played upon games, realities that are recursively layered upon realities… things are going to get a whole lot more meta in the not-to-distant future.