Defining a New Aesthetics in Augmented Reality

Will Google’s Project Glass change the way we see & capture the world in Augmented Reality (AR)? What kind of new visual space will emerge?

Google recently shared first-person perspective photographs and video captured directly from the Project Glass wearable AR eyewear prototype featuring video of a Glass team member doing a backflip on a trampoline (above) and photographs that  would be quite difficult for you to take while holding a camera in your hands. In a presentation at the Google+ Photographer’s Conference, Tech Lead Max Braun stated, “I think this can bring on a new style of photography that allows you to be more intimate with the world you are capturing.” Braun also pointed out how Glass is a connected device and how the moments you capture can be immediately shared. While going through some of the photographs team members had taken using Glass, he noted, “Some of the shots make you really feel like you’re there.” He referred to Glass as “an evolution of cell phone photography. It’s the next step of the camera that’s always with you.”

Having worked with AR as both a PhD researcher and designer for the past 7 years, my interests are in how AR, as a new medium, will come to change the way we see, experience, and interact with our world. Although Project Glass is still in an early prototyping phase, and the photography and video that have been shared are not AR, they do offer intriguing possibilities for how such AR eyewear can alter how we come to capture and share images and video of our surroundings and what new aesthetic styles of imagery this may generate.

We are at a moment in AR’s emergence as a new medium when we can look both to the future and to the past: still seeing the previous forms that are shaping AR while paving new paths, contributing to novel styles and conventions. It is imperative for artists, designers and storytellers to work collaboratively with computer engineers in industry and academia to steer AR forward and contribute to a new aesthetics and language of AR.

The photographs (and even video) from Project Glass, for me, recall artist David Hockney‘s photographic collage work, known as his “joiners”, in which multiple individually shot photographs were layered to compose a larger image. In conversation with writer and friend Lawrence Weschler, Hockney states of his photocollages, “I realized that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see, which is to say, not all-at-once but rather in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world” (Weschler 11). Hockney continues, “There are a hundred separate looks across time from which I synthesize my living impression of you” (11). The act of seeing is a process of synthesis akin to Hockney’s combination of photographs, each square documenting a separate look to compose a totality of the cumulative experience of seeing “across time” and forming, as Hockney states, a “living impression”, shaping and growing continually. Hockney’s joiners were greatly influenced by the Cubist artists’ sense of multiple angles and movement.

Hockney states an “ordinary photograph” is missing “lived time”, referring to photography as “looking at the world through the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops – for a split second”, and hence not conveying a true “experience of living in the world” (9). He notes to Weschler, “If instead, I caught all of you in one frozen look, the experience would be dead – it would be like looking at an ordinary photograph” (11).

Is there something extraordinary, then, about the photographs captured with Project Glass? Yes, I believe there is, and we’re only beginning to see what might be possible. So what’s so special about these images then; how do they differ from “ordinary photographs”? It’s interesting to think of the Project Glass photos as being captured by a “Cyclops”, to refer to Hockney, because, well, that’s basically what they are: a single lens attached to your head that sees and captures the world from a first-person perspective. Yet, to continue with Hockney’s conceptualization, I believe these images get closer to conveying “a true experience of living in the world”, one where your experience in that moment is documented as is without having to stop and grab your camera. Braun comments on “how effortless and natural it is to do so”, with Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin adding, “I think this can bring on a new style of photography that allows you to be more intimate with the world you are capturing, and doesn’t take you away from it.” Project Glass captures what you are in fact seeing in that moment, and very close to how you are seeing it. The experience is still very much alive, not dead, as Hockney argued of ordinary photographs, and ‘living’ also in the sense that these experiences can immediately be shared with others over a network.

Hockney’s collages were an inspiration to some of my early creative experiments in AR, in a series I refer to as the AR Joiners, 2008-2009. The AR Joiners extended Hockney’s concepts to use 2D video clips in AR in a tactile composite form, of individual paper markers overlapping to create one larger AR collaged scene. Each of the short video clips that compose the AR Joiners was recorded over a series of separate moments, as opposed to one take that was cut into multiple fragments running on the same timeline. This was a conscious design choice: the AR Joiners were about the body moving in time (in both capturing the video footage and to later have the viewer reassemble it as an AR experience, piecing together the separate video clips across time with paper markers, akin to Hockney’s photocollage process), in distinct moments and views, which accumulate to combine a total memory of the space or experience across time. (The AR Joiners are discussed in the ISMAR 2009 paper “Augmented Reality (AR) Joiners, A Novel Expanded Cinematic Form ” published by IEEE).

When I was working on the AR Joiners from 2008-2009, Microsoft’s Photosynth had also recently launched. Photosynth, for me, recalled the aesthetic of Hockney’s Joiners. At the time, Photosynth was a web-based photo visualization tool (now available as a panorama app on smart phones) that could generate a three-dimensional (3D) representation from a collection of two-dimensional (2D) photos of a place or object. Software analyzed the photos for similarities and then constructed a 3D layered display of the photos through which viewers could navigate and delve further into the scene. “Synths”, as they were referred to, created a totality of the cumulative experience of seeing “across time”, comparable to Hockney’s Joiners (1970-1986).

So what does all of this have to do with Google’s Project Glass?

I believe Hockney’s Joiners, the AR Joiners, and Photosynth each contribute to an aesthetic that Project Glass, in documenting our lived experiences of the world, has the potential to extend into new visual conventions. I’d like to propose that each of the above projects applies a (neo)baroque aesthetic, one which I think is very important for AR and we will see more of as AR continues to evolve into a new medium beyond just a technology.

In the article, “Architectures of the Senses: Neo-baroque Entertainment Spectacles”, 2003, Angela Ndalianis writes,

“The baroque’s difference from classical systems lies in the refusal to respect the limits of the frame. Instead, it intends to invade spaces in every direction, to perforate it, to become as one with all its possibilities” (Ndalianis 360).

This description of the baroque aligns quite nicely with Hockney’s Joiners, AR Joiners and Photosynth, which each demonstrate ways of moving beyond the limits of the single frame, expanding in multiple directions, puncturing conventional space.

Ndalianis identifies Pietro da Corona’s ceiling painting “The Glorification of Urban VIII” (Rome, 1633-1639) in the Palazzo Barberini as baroque, where “the narrative from one panel literally spills into the narrative of another” and “the impression is such that, in order to spill into the next visual and narrative space the figures and objects perceptually appear to enter into our own space within the Palazzo Barberini” (361). In contrast she notes, “A strictly classically aligned composition would, instead, have enclosed and kept discrete the separate narrative borders.” (361). AR enters into “our own space”, with the narrative of the augmented environment spilling into our physical surroundings.

Ndalianis discusses how the spectator is central in (neo)baroque space and vision. She writes,

“With borders continually being rewritten, (neo)baroque vision provides models of perception that suggest worlds of infinity that lose the center that is traditionally associated with classically ordered space. Rather the center is to be found in the position of the spectator, with the representational center changing depending on the spectator’s focus. Given that (neo)baroque spectacle provides polycentric and multiple shifting centers, the spectator, in a sense, remains the only element in the image/viewer scenario that remains centered and stable. It is the audience’s perception and active engagement with the image that orders the illusion” (358).

With AR, the position of the spectator is the center, with the possibility of changing the AR experience depending on the spectator’s focus, position, and context. Just as Ndalianis writes, it is the spectator’s “perception and active engagement” with the AR “that orders the illusion.” In a previous article, I described AR as primarily a lean back model; however, AR has great potential to become an interactive lean forward model, one in which “active engagement” will make the spectator’s context, interests, and motivations even more central to ordering and defining the illusion.

Although the photographs Google shared are 2D and not interactive in this early stage, Google’s Project Glass has the potential to impact a “lean forward” model in AR and contribute to a (neo)baroque style in AR where the spectator, through customized eyewear, will really be at the center in a new ordered visual space. The possibilities for capturing first-person perspective photography and video directly via the eyewear may come to help define a new set of aesthetics and stylistic tendencies, perhaps one closer to Hockney’s vision of “lived time” and a “record of human looking” in his joiners. I am intrigued to see how the current 2D images and video will expand beyond the frame once Project Glass is AR enabled, to quote Ndalianis again, extending “space in every direction, to perforate it, to become as one with all its possibilities.”

But, dear readers, I cannot leave you here on just a visual note. We shall not limit AR to strictly a visual experience, it must be fully sensorial as we push ahead as an industry and community of researchers to grow the medium. Ndalianis writes, “When discussing the neo-baroque we also need to consider an architecture and regime that engages the sensorium” (367). She refers to “haptic, gustatory, olfactory, to the auditory and the visual”, all of which AR as a new medium needs to experiment with and extend into, beyond computer vision and tracking. Adrian Cheok’s keynote at ISMAR 2011 in Basel, Switzerland addressed the need for AR to engage the other senses. With projects exploring taste and smell in AR, like Meta Cookie from the University of Tokyo, and work being done in AR haptics, such as at the Magic Vision Lab, University of South Australia, AR will continue to expand in new ways, beyond visual frames and into the full human sensorium, to truly become “one with all its possibilities”.


Ndalianis, Angela. “Architectures of Senses: Neo-baroque Entertainment Spectacles.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Weschler, Lawrence. Cameraworks, New York: Knopf, 1984.


Helen Papagiannis