Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, immersive experience. Technology offers us escape and multisensory immersion in a world. But transforming it into a tool for creativity is up to us

When talk turns to technology and imagination, the opinions gravitate around two terms that are all too often overlaid and confused: virtual reality and augmented reality. The first permits immersion in a digital world totally disconnected from the real world. The second accompanies physical reality, helping users with real information and possibilities added to the everyday context. How can they feed our imagination?

“Augmented Reality is one of the digital innovations that is truly capable of uniting the concrete physical world with the imaginary world, expanding their potential,” says Paolo Bagnoli, Head of Marketing of the telephony division of Samsung Electronics Italia. Last year, the South Korean giant launched an app (Bixby Vision) that uses image recognition and augmented reality. “This is a technology in exponential growth, already for years now, and it can be used to add quality to experiences: from travel to shopping, pure entertainment to edutainment in the context of museums and the arts. It allows us to enrich the real world with a series of perceptional data connected with the technologies of artificial intelligence. Augmented Reality permits us to have interactivity in real time based on different sensory modes.” It is obvious that a tool of this sort can also be utilized in a passive way: the equivalent of sitting on the couch and enjoying the show, albeit augmented. The difference, as often happens, lies in the who is using the technology. “The fact remains that Augmented Reality is definitely a potential amplifier of our imagination,” Bagnoli concludes. For those who understand how to put it into action.

The discussion changes when it comes to Virtual Reality, which above all in the wake of the pandemic is increasingly synonymous with escape. Hence video games, reviled prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, now have the blessing of the WHO, in the campaign #PlayTogetherApart that promotes them for their therapeutic value. Games, in fact, have therapeutic power as a distraction from reality and a means of social communication, making it possible to stay in touch with friends in online multiplayer situations. Technology becomes a true escape route from forced isolation, while stimulating the imagination. Not by chance, the lockdown has triggered the revival of Second Life, the site launched in 2003 by the company Linden Lab, presenting a virtual environment that was pioneering in the field of 3D reality. Regions to explore, events to witness, public and private chats, virtual currency, with an avatar (the resident) which has our features (or not). Today at the site we can read a phrase closer to the worldwide situation: “Remote work redefined: Second Life offers a safe, fun solution for virtual meetups, classes and conferences.” So SL is now being used as a platform for online meetings and education. Obviously we have many tools, like Zoom, Skype or  Google Meet, developed to simplify interpersonal contact, but the three dimensions of Second Life can add something more: to create gathering, to implement more complex, interactive and creative projects. And to plunge into the magical world of Second Life all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.

But apart from the area of “gaming” or entertainment, can virtual reality truly create scenarios in which to dream? Maybe the answer lies in finding a solution that can take the form of a proper middle path between virtual and augmented reality.

As Marco Tabasso, one of the founders of Anotherview, explains: “The new technologies, besides being effective in the design phase to help imagine a space, also permit the coexistence in the same domestic setting of ‘other’ realities that enable us to ‘escape’ from our here and now, taking us elsewhere. The tendency to virtually deform and break the walls that border the reality of living space has undoubtedly always existed, and can be seen in the choice of certain decorations, the presence of paintings, such as those showing natural subjects, or in the use of warm instead of cool lighting, and the selection of furnishings. Also in public spaces, this tendency has always existed, for example in the use of frescos, or perspective strategies that alter perception of spaces, including the theatrical control of light sources.”

He goes on: “The new technologies offer a totally different level of effectiveness, because as in the case of Anotherview they can involve multiple senses at the same time, in a more immersive way, giving us the possibility to ‘portray’ a day across 24 hours, flowing outside our window, made of small stories we can observe, voices that echo in our ears: a world that seems to exist now but is actually part of the past triggers a sort of nostalgia for the present. To somehow obtain this, we have used an analog approach, reconstructing – around the virtual element of the video – a window that is a crafted reproduction of the one from which we filmed on location, offering the spectator not only the view in itself, but also a part of the physical reality of that place in a precise moment of its history. Without leaving our living rooms, we can thus watch white horses around a pond on a summer day in the Camargue, enjoy the view of an apartment on the Upper East Side  in New York on a winter afternoon, look out from a hotel room to watch a crowded cafe at Saint-Germain-des-Prés; we can observe the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a herd of elephants around a pool of water in Namibia, the colorful life of the ghats from a house floating on the Ganges in monsoon season.”

Our imagination does the rest: because the human mind can always reach the point of activating other senses, which accompanied by the images and sensations that are already ours, can help us to have the sensation of a gentle breeze on the skin, and the scent of the sea.

Anotherview at Casa Fornasetti. Ph. Credit Tomaso Lisca

Cover photo: ‘International Liquid Finger Prayer’, installation in augmented reality by the artist Pipilotti Rist, Tour [AR] T of 'Today at Apple '. In 2019 Apple, in collaboration with New Museum, proposed a series of works by contemporary artists in AR viewable in all the Apple Stores in the world. Ph. Courtesy Apple.