BREAKING NEWS: Chaos descends across the city of London. An unknown creature soars over Trafalgar Square. A giant leaps off a roof at Covent Garden, then disintegrates into dust. Ordinary people transform into comic-book characters, follow multi-coloured roads and stop to watch folktales being told in the trees.
It’s pure madness, yet total entertainment.
The [AR]T Walk by Apple superimposed colour and creativity onto a drizzly Friday morning.
We set off on the 1.5k walk, with ‘Beats’ headphones around our necks and the latest iPhone XR in our pockets, curious as to how the tech-giant Apple ‘does AR’.
Here are the four lessons for AR experiences.
1. Not everything needs an explanation
The meaning of art is tricky to pinpoint and often artists strive to create work that’s ambiguous. Add the fact that AR is relatively new to society and can prove tricky to get to grips with – art and AR combined is a challenging mix. But somehow, it worked, and I praise Apple for taking the risk.
As stand-alone digital art installations, we had little idea of what to expect. We were given a brief introduction to the artist and the name of the piece – for example Pipilotti Rist, ‘International Liquid Finger Prayer’ – then that’s it, we’re left to our own devices, quite literally.
We all hold up the phones and stand waiting for something to happen.
All of a sudden, a screeching bubble-like creature shoots upwards and we all try desperately to follow it. The creature seems directionless – even the audio is purposefully distorted so we can barely make sense of the words. Nobody knows what it is, or exactly what it’s saying, and that was all part of the joyful, if slightly unsettling experience.
When developing an AR application, it’s important to distinguish between what the user can be allowed to interpret on their own, and what they have to know before they start. The multiple functions and symbols of an AR application can be difficult for the public to comprehend – and Apple knows it.
2. Tell me only what I need to know
Before we set off, our guides provided a briefing session to familiarise us with the technology.
The first skill we needed to practise: anchoring. We were asked to stand in a line and hold out our phones at eye level. We then opened the app and practised, one by one, turning our devices – slowly – towards a designated spot on the wall.
This was a key function throughout the experience and each anchor activated the next digital art installation. However, it became tedious needing to constantly stop and anchor at a random point.
How could this be solved? Make the ‘anchoring’ motion more relevant to the artwork.
The artwork was full of make-believe creatures and it would be interesting if, between art pieces, the users follow one of the creatures with their devices – moving at the same pace and direction. These movements of our device could automatically anchor the user. This would keep us within the digital art world and make the overall experience more seamless.
The second skill: taking pictures and recording video. Our guides asked us to capture a photograph and a video using the buttons – a feature that we constantly used during the experience.
These buttons were a faded white at the bottom of the screen and therefore quite discreet.
Without the guide explaining what they were/what they are used for, we may have only noticed them halfway through the experience when photo opportunities would have passed or worse, not noticed the buttons at all. So it was worth getting clued-up before setting off.
3. The outdoors aren’t always great
As we walked through parts of London full of famous landmarks, the crowds became an issue. I found myself bumping into strangers and avoiding people who were trying to get a glimpse of what I was watching on my device.
So, could we put this experience indoors? Well, not without lessening the effect. Some installations relied on features from the outdoors. In Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s installation ‘This is it’, for example, we all needed access to tree trunks. When we held our devices up, the trees turned hollow to reveal a fairy-tale being told inside.
Just as we were all settling in, typical British weather kicked in and raindrops were falling onto our devices. We immediately had to put the phones away to protect it.
The darkening sky was the perfect canvas for Pippaloti’s screaming creature to fly around but whenever the sun came out, I couldn’t look up into the device because it was too bright.
Unless Apple ensured that everyone was equipped with umbrellas and sunglasses before we set off – which is impractical to hold and store – the weather determined if we could have our devices out and held up.
To avoid user frustration, AR should work rain or shine. But for now, however all-powerful Apple are, they can’t control the weather. Not yet, anyway.
4. My arm hurts
An AR app depends on user interaction, but that doesn’t mean you can ask too much of them. Designers need to be aware that users need moments for the phone to come down, or even go away – and the interaction still needs to flow with those breaks included.
For any AR designers, it’s worth testing: how long you can hold out a phone in front you at eye-level or above? For me it was around 30 seconds, and my fellow walkers seemed to agree. The final two experiences both asked us to hold our phones up high for up to two minutes, which necessitated switching hands, propping up our elbows or employing other tricks to make it more comfortable.
How to ensure the experience is ache-free? Either place breaks into the experience, or cut down the length of time we need to hold our phones in an upwards position. Otherwise you’ll have some pretty uncomfortable users.
I had little exposure to AR before joining Arcade – but experiences like this make clear that AR is already far more widespread than most people realise, and the exciting reality is that society will very soon be using it on a regular basis. And not just for [AR]T Walks.