The urban AR lab was an experimental workspace at Stadttfinden Festival that took place in September 2017 at an old factory building called Glasfabrik located at the periphery of Leipzig.
As a team of four (with Jörn Röder and Lennert Raesch) we developed sensor kits that sent repeated measurements like carbon dioxide, air humidity, temperature and water values to smartphones in Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. By causing changes in the mobile device’s camera image we visualized the invisible and unvisited phenomenons of growing cities. We invited Stadttfinden visitors into our open laboratory and took them with us on what we called AR walks to re-see and reimagine the urban habitat in performative and experimental ways.
At the beginning of the AR walks we introduced visitors to the idea of making invisible data tangible. Most visitors had never used VR headsets, so we made sure everyone adjusted their headset accordingly and would stop using it in case it made them feel ill. We took wool, stickers, and a mysterious suitcase with us.
We left our laboratory and headed into Glasfabrik’s main hall, where we had already placed sensor kit ‘Fancy Laser’ in a rainy, roofless corner right below an old chimney. It functioned as a sort of weather station, measuring air temperature and humidity, ultra-violet light, ground moisture and carbon dioxide. The other artists’ and performers’ works at the festival were instantly modified when we put on the VR headsets. Especially the temperature − it was warm and sunny nearing the end of afternoon − had distorted the colors of the factory: Even the walls, which were covered in graffiti, had given away all their blues to become bright green areas. Outside, we connected to the next sensor kit and started our trip alongside some old industrial facilities.
While walking, we wanted to connect the mousy but important Serving area interfaces of internet providers in the nearby streets with red string to expose the last mile of underground internet cable. Interestingly, there was none of them close to the Glasfabrik. Of course, since most other buildings here were abandoned, why would anyone invest in modern internet structure? After a few hundred meters, we found the first box on a crossing leading into a residential area that looked more in shape. We pinned the beginning of the red string to it using some urban AR lab stickers.
Continuing our way, while the red string was carried, rolled, thrown or kicked along the sidewalks, the distance between subsequent boxes became smaller and smaller. Some passing pedestrians and car drivers were amused or bewildered by our doing. After two more turnings we suddenly ended up in front of a big, gray building with a radio tower in the backyard. It was enclosed by a metal fence. The post box revealed a tiny, washed out ‘Telekom’, the name of a major mobile phone contractor.
We also carried a suitcase that screamed out the names of people’s home networks. Many people leave their device’s WiFi connection activated when on the go. The device in their pocket is still calling for its home, constantly trying to connect. The suitcase hears these cries and answers. We explained how operators of public spaces like shopping malls use this technique to map their customers’ movements and analyze their buying behaviour with Big Data algorithms. Of all the things we did on the AR walks, the suitcase was the most perplexing to passersby, probably because it was loud and invasive. Some of them were shaking their heads and called us crazy while others got interested and wanted to know more.
Even though the images our headsets produced were weird, indecipherable or fantastic to the walkers, they got a sense of when things were changing. Values like carbon dioxide and air temperature differed in different streets, resulting in varying visual outcomes.
Urban transformation was not always happening where we assumed. We followed the internet distribution boxes through a park, expecting low carbon dioxide values. To our confusion they were higher than in the residential area we just left. Maybe it was due to the pub, the noisy bouncy castle or the Telekom company building with the big tower just next to the garden allotments around the next corner? The AR walks only visualized the symptoms, not the cause.
Still, since it was so simple and straightforward − by just strapping on a headset − we gladly adapted to our newly gained senses. Optical cues like the dark noise coming from the carbon dioxide emission were easy to recognize for the walkers, generating discussions and wild guesses on their source. At some point they got so excited about the distortions that were caused by the volume sensor that they all started to scream to see how far they could go together. Even after the walk, some of them stayed to discuss what else should be visible.
Within this experiment, despite on a small scale, making the invisible noticeable worked out surprisingly well. In the future, we plan to develop a sensor kit that is as affordable and painless to use as possible. We want to make customized and as yet unthinkable visions available to all citizens, encouraging them to make their own city a better place.