Remote control for the city

In a few years we will all navigate our way through the city with a smartphone. The Amsterdam version of the mobile architecture application from the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) leaves you in no doubt about that, despite the teething troubles and its limited possibilities. Soon you will be able to zap your way through the city using your telephone as a remote control device. But can this technology enhance the contact between people and their surroundings and, in the process, enhance the quality of the built environment?

Much has already been said and written about UAR, the interactive mobile architecture application from the NAi. In short, UAR enables architecture fans to obtain local information about existing, vanished or planned buildings through their smartphone, such as the iPhone. It works very simply: imagine you are walking through Amsterdam or Rotterdam and you see an interesting building; you point the lens of your smartphone at it and a layer of information about the building in question appears on your screen.

The letters UAR are an abbreviation for ‘Urban Augmented Reality’, a reference to the technology that makes it possible to look at text and (moving) images on a screen as an extra layer over the physical world around you. Currently, that is only possible using a smartphone fitted with a camera, compass, GPS and the right application, or ‘app’ as it is called. Some people attending the launch in ARCAM seemed unwilling to leave behind the recent past in which we were dependent on our sense of direction, the printed city plan and travel guides to prevent us from losing our way in the city. Just as was the case with the introduction of text messaging and email, some time will be needed before everyone recognises the usefulness of UAR. In the end, though, everyone get accustomed to the idea and accept it.

The first reports stressed the revolutionary and playful character of UAR, and rightly so. But since this new technology is still under development, it is still getting over all sorts of teething problems. If a tram passes by, for example, the magnetic compass is disrupted and the information literally flies off the screen. The addition heavy usage means your phone overheats and runs out of energy more quickly. The images are awkward looking, the shadow effects are often incorrect, and the available information is usually limited to the (building) history, official press and archive photos, and a dry list of names and dates. And then there is the drawback of the small screen and the fact that the GPS data contains inaccuracies, which means that the information is often projected just next to the desired place.UAR (pronounced ‘you are’) also evokes associations with other online media like MySpace and YouTube that emphasise the user (you) and stimulate individual creativity, or at least suggest it. During the launch in Amsterdam, the director of the NAi Ole Bouman said that UAR enables you to give yourself (back) to the city, and vice versa, to bring the city to yourself. That sounds great, but unfortunately it is not quite true yet.

Your touchscreen does indeed put you in direct contact with your surroundings so to speak. But up to now the supply of information through UAR has been in one direction only: information is uploaded by experts and can be accessed by users, but the latter cannot add anything themselves. It is as though the city has become a television programme and your telephone is some sort of remote control device with which you can switch channel or information layer.
The city as a TV that you can zap your way through is of course exciting and educational. UAR would not have been out of place in a sci-fi movie from the 1980s or ’90s like Blade Runner, Artificial Intelligence and The Matrix, in which technology held man firmly in its grasp. But now it’s 2010 and the past decade has brought forth more flexible and social forms of technology, from open source software to social media. It is the era of such films as The Social Network and experiments with names like WikyCity and Micropolis in which interactivity, collective knowledge and the free availability of information (open source) are key. The UAR app does have the potential to respond to such developments, but so far it is not much more than a futuristic architecture guide.

Despite all its limitations, UAR is an important step in the development of a transparent and interactive city. What could be the next steps?

First, it can connect with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter so that UAR users can tell friends and acquaintances where they are and what they think of it. Internet giant Google is also moving in this direction with Google Places, which enables you to indicate where you are and leave behind tips and information for other visitors to that place. Other mobile applications like Facebook Places, foursquare and the Dutch apps Feest.je and Nulaz allow you to share your location with others, upload photos and at the same time see where your friends are and what they are doing. That will allow UAR to strengthen social interaction among users and stimulate people to offer comments and visit unknown places.

A possible next step is the addition of playful gaming elements to UAR, which will encourage users to answer questions of knowledge and take up other challenges with the prospect of a reward. The American firm SCVNGR (from ‘scavenger hunt’) is developing mobile social games such as the National Geographic Trek in which users visit and photograph the head office of National Geographic in Washington and earn a nice prize in the process. Or think of Shadow Cities, a new game in which you can conquer your own neighbourhood.

Finally, within the limits of what is now known and possible, UAR can be expanded to enable users to propose changes to the city, from the hardware (architecture) to the software (upgrading the public space). In this respect one can think of the website Verbeterdebuurt.nl and Architect-toon! from the Waag Society. The smartphone in your hand will thus become a powerful instrument with which you can not only zap between particular layers of information but also vote for architectural and urban projects. What’s more, you could project alternative proposals onto a particular site. Remote control, game console and drawing table all rolled into one.

The use of smartphones and apps is growing enormously. Just like other recent experiments with augmented reality browsers like the ARtours from the Stedelijk Museum (with augmented reality artworks that are only visible with your smartphone), the NAi must now take the next steps to enable the UAR app to grow. While the app is now essentially an interactive architecture guide that works like a remote control device for information about the city, most of the new possibilities lie in the area of social interaction, gaming, and do-it-yourself creativity. And given the impressive list of partners, from architecture centres to local authorities and architecture firms, there appears to be a lot of eagerness for this new way of supplying information.

Nonetheless, it is debatable whether an institute like the NAi is the right party to develop UAR further and take it beyond the small group of early adopters. Layar, the software supplier for the UAR app, only became successful when other commercial parties started to deploy the technology. In the Netherlands that was the Funda real estate website, which displayed all available houses for sale in one layer so that you could find your dream home as you walked through your favourite neighbourhood. It is also very well possible that property developers and estate agents will deploy the application to promote future new-build projects through a virtual layer.

The new applications explore beyond the borders of architecture. They offer more scope for the desires and personal preferences of users and place different demands on the presentation of building projects and design ideas. The combination of assertive consumers and interactive media is altering the role of the architect and setting the notion of quality on edge. It is for the NAi to decide whether it literally wants to enable UAR users to take power into their own hands.