CyberTracking, Geotagging, and the Superimposed Virtual Earth

google earthJo’s post on CyberTracker got me to thinking again about geotagging and its aesthetic implications. Without stepping into the cultural/economic/sociopolitical ramifications of the CyberTracker story, it is interesting to note that what the Kalahari Bushmen are doing is, at least technologically, not that different from what Chia Ying Lee’s ‘Sonic Graffiti’ intends for its participants to do, which is to create a location-specific record of an activity at a particular time and place, and have that record persist indefinitely, tied to the location of its creation. This data can then be accessed again via wireless technologies when one is in the location of the original ‘recording’.

Right now, most people’s experience with geotagged media is through a browser interface like Google maps or the Google Earth application, or a web-based piece like Sound Transit. Google Earth in particular uses the concept of overlays, in which anyone can, through Google’s API, create a unique series of data points/locations to overlay onto the Google Earth map. This overlay can contain geotagged media, text, links, etc. and it is a useful concept to extrapolate to what I see as happening in the CyberTracker and ‘Sonic Graffiti’ examples. These, in using the same metaphor, create an overlay onto the real Earth. In ‘Sonic Graffiti’, listeners in proximity to sonic graffiti pieces will hear them through a playback device. With CyberTracker, given a wireless internet connection, one could potentially access the data on the wildlife sightings at the actual points of the sightings. Teri Rueb’s ‘Core Sample’ does something along these lines in its use of GPS to play back audio depending on where the listener is along sound walk. All geotagged media, by nature, contains this potential.

The point of departure for another discussion is in the ramifications of this virtual ‘overlay’ we are superimposing onto our physical world. Assume for the moment that we will soon all have mobile devices that will allow us to deposit and access geotagged media anywhere we can get a wireless connection. At the moment that this becomes commonplace, we will begin to build a permanent virtual overlay of media onto any and every point on the planet at which someone decides to leave some imprint of their presence. As time passes, this overlay will become more dense and complex, and at any given tagged point, one will be able to go back through that point’s history of data: for example, someone takes a picture of a glacier in Glacier National Park and tags it and uploads it at that point. Five years later, someone else at that location sees the picture on their device and is suddenly confronted with dramatic change in that glacier’s size. As another example, consider the possibility of a specific location in some city tagged with years of photos, audio recordings, text messages, and so forth. Any visitor to that point could access media from thousands of perspectives left at different points in time.

The terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘virtual reality’ were the buzzwords of the mid to late 90s. Now, ten or so years later, the virtual world we spend so much of our time in – often in front of a computer and not interacting with the ‘real’ world – is being stretched over our physical world in such a way as to create a ‘hybrid reality’ in which we will always be connected and always moving fluidly between physical and networked interaction and communication.

I am, as usual, curious to know what you think. What other outcomes could you envision from our current technological trajectory? What aesthetic possibilities arise in such a ‘hybrid reality’? Have you had ‘hybrid reality’ experiences as described above, and if so, did you think of them as such when you had them? Perhaps most importantly, what questions does this make you ask?

Jul 17, 2007
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4 Responses

  1. jo:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the thought provoking post! I was immediately reminded of Lev Manovich’s essay The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada; your “hybrid reality” is what he refers to as “augmented space.” He suggests that the discontinuities and interaction between the two realities/spaces present opportunities for interesting aesthetic investigation. From the essay…

    “…Augmented space research gives us new terms to think about previous spatial practices. If before we would think of an architect, a fresco painter, or a display designer working to combine architecture and images, or architecture and text, or incorporating different symbolic systems in one spatial construction, we can now say that all of them were working on the problem of augmented space: how to overlay layers of data over physical space.”

    He uses Janet Cardiff’s audio walks as an example:

    “… In my view her “walks” represent the best realization of augmented space paradigm so far – even though Cardiff do(es) not use any sophisticated computer, networking and projection technologies. Cardiff’s “walks” show the aesthetic potential of overlaying a new information space over a physical space. The power of these “walks” lies in the interactions between the two spaces – between vision and hearing (what the user is seeing and what she is hearing), and between present and past (the time of user’s walk versus the audio narration which like any media recording belongs to some undefined time in the past).”

    [Manovich could be describing Teri Rueb’s Itinerant]

    “… GPS, wireless location services, surveillance technologies, and other augmented space technologies all define data space – if not in practice than at least in their imagination – as a continuous field completely extending over and filling in all of physical space … To use the terms of Borges’ famous story, all these technologies want to make the map equal to the territory … [I]n practice data spaces are almost never continuous: surveillance cameras … look at some spaces but not at others, wireless signal is stronger in some areas and non-existent in others, and so on.

    As Matt Locke eloquently describes this, “Mobile networks have to negotiate the architecture of spaces that they attempt to inhabit. Although the interfaces have removed themselves from physical architectures, the radio waves that connect cell spaces are refracted and reflected by the same obstacles, creating not a seamless network but a series of ebbs and flows. The supposedly flat space of the network is in fact flat, pulled into troughs and peaks by the gravity of architecture and the users themselves.”

    This contrast between continuity of cellspace in theory and its discontinuity in practice should not be dismissed; rather, it itself can be the source of interesting aesthetics strategies.

    … it is at the interaction of the physical space and the data that some of the most amazing art of our time is being created … artists can take the next logical step to consider the “invisible” space of electronic data flows as substance rather than just a void – something that needs a structure, a politics, and a poetics.” — Lev Manovich

    Update: for those of you who missed it, here’s Peter’s earlier post, The Future of Geotagged Audio.


  2. peter:

    funny, i must’ve had manovich’s essay in the back of my head when writing this, as i recall reading it in preparation for my comprehensive exams earlier in the year. i wish i had remembered it since it basically says everything i just did (and better too). i’ll need to reread it now of course. Cardiff’s sound walks, and a video walk, which i experienced at SFMOMA in ’01, are such wonderful examples of this potential. what is even better is that they can be done with fairly archaic technology – you could do it with a cassette player if you really wanted to – and still the participant would have this tremendously expanded/tweaked notion of the space around them. this is of course why i am trying to get in touch with her to interview her for this blog and for my dissertation.

    i am curious though, do you differentiate (or could one differentiate) between the terms ‘augmented space’ and ‘hybrid reality’? manovich derives his term from the 90s term ‘augmented reality’, and i suppose ‘hybrid reality’ could be the same thing. what i am trying to get at, then, is some term that is more than just a technical description but somehow encompasses an artistic practice or type of experience given presence by these technologies.

    i think of cardiff’s work as more than just augmented space. by this i mean that it is not just data points that one accesses that are superimposed over physical space, but it is an entire narrative, sometimes a parallel world that runs simultaneously to the real world the participant is inhabiting. in my own experience with one of her pieces, the feeling i got was not of being in a real space that was augmented with data but still primarily real. rather, i felt like i was in a new place altogether, some hybrid of the images and sound playing back on the camcorder and the world around me which at times contradicted each other. at least once during the experience i couldn’t remember if something that had just happened occurred in the camcorder or right in front of me. it is that type of experience that i think is going to become more commonplace in the next decade, just as a result our daily interaction with augmented space. the question, and i admit it might be a bit trivial and academic, is whether augmented space really describes the totality of the experience that Cardiff’s sound walks and other similar works encompass. maybe, as happens with all new technologies, an entirely new vocabulary/jargon will arise that better helps us discuss it.

  3. jo:

    Hi Peter,

    The term that works best for me is “mixed realities.” As you can see on networked_performance, it’s one of my favorite topics. What I like about it is it does not privilege one reality over another, i.e. physical over virtual, alternate, or augmented. It does not elevate body over mind, nor does it draw a distinction between them. While the term has only been in use since the emergence of hybrid networks (Internet and mobile), it really ought to precede digital networks and computers. In a recent post, I excerpted a portion of text from Mediated. It begins “(W)e are living a fusion of real and unreal time, an ongoing undulation of overlays and intersections … It’s most like the way good old-fashioned thinking and imagining work in relation to sensing and perceiving … ” (my emphasis).

    Art has always dealt with multiple realities; indeed, one may argue that the entire history of western art is a record of our attempts to grasp the realities of our time.

    As far as Manovich is concerned, perhaps we ought not to conflate “space” with “reality”?


  4. jo:

    Also see Mapamp, which “uses existing structures and systems (architecture of a city, navigation and radio systems) to layer an artificial acoustic space over the original one. The participant walks the streets wearing a special vest that allows him/her to navigate through different sound data fields. These virtual spaces differ from the geographic city scape. Changing his / her position, the walker can pick up and mix the sounds, which come into connection with the architectural features of the public space: the noise of the surroundings, distant radio stations and abstract sound samples intermingle in the space, depending upon the position, direction and velocity of the visitors.”

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