The Role of AR in Urban Art Installations for Creating Immersive Experience:
Case of the Stonewall Forever and the AR(t) Walks in NYC
Keywords: Augmented Reality (AR), Experience, Immersive Urban Art Installation, Memory, Public Place
Two public parks in New York City, Christopher Park and Central Park are very different from each other by their scale, history, background, and popularity, yet they will play an equally significant role in this essay. Because, earlier this year, when they both have become venues for immersive urban art installations supported by two big tech companies such as Apple and Google, attracting thousands of visitors to join these curated AR experiences.
The term Augmented Reality or ‘AR’ was used for the first time in 1992, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, and it is defined as an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera) and also the technology itself that is used to create augmented reality.
According to the New York Journey, Central Park has almost 25 million visitors each year. On the other hand, Christopher Park, as it is located right in front of the Stonewall Inn, the place has a rich history of LGBTQ rights. The activist history of space helped to shape the neighborhood and it led to a bigger movement for human rights. This year, the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots welcomed approximated five million participants at Pride weekend only in Manhattan. (nycpride.org, 2019) Just by looking at the numbers I think it is possible to say that both public places have big potential to reach more people than a museum or any other art studio.
Lately, immersive art installations are gaining popularity and many of them use AR technology. Art has always been looking for new ways to enhance the way to express itself. Therefore it is not surprising to see artists using technology as a tool to look for new opportunities to create new experiences. These two cases of installations in historically significant New York City Parks contribute to the new and popular understanding of immersive art experience and they help the city become an open museum space.
In this essay, I would like to tackle the capacity of AR technology as a storytelling tool in the urban sphere by merging the virtual and physical space. I argue that AR improves the overall user experience and interaction quality of artwork in public space. The main goal of this text is to evaluate the user experience of AR technology in selected immersive urban art installations in Christopher Park and Central Park. By doing this, I will address whether or not the AR technology is enhancing the perception of space in users and if it is a successful tool for creating better experiences for users.
This essay will also question the role of AR in immersive installations located in public spaces by comparing two examples. The reason for focusing on urban art installations is that most of the time, they are designed for a specific space. Therefore space-related terms of “Immersion” and “Presence” will be explained through the examples.
There are three reasons for choosing these two site-specific cases. First, they can be experienced by the visitor in person on the site, as they are both located in New York City. Thus, I had the chance to personally experience these installations. The second reason is, they both use their own mobile app as an intermediary medium for experience, which is the most common and practical way to reach an audience for AR artworks. The third and the last reason is, even though both examples use the same method and they are located in city parks, they have significantly distant purposes regarding experiencing the space they are situated in reality.
I also have to note that virtual reality or any other immersive technologies are purposefully left out of the scope of this essay. As there are more and more articles focusing on the use and experience of VR technologies in different fields of artistic practices and different VR devices such as Google’s Oculus, Samsung’s Gear and Sony’s PlayStation VR devices keep appearing on mainstream media and academia, the number of publications about the power of AR technologies and its creative use in the realm of art and architecture seems to be lacking. Thus, it is important to look at some of the current art installations situated in urban public areas and discuss their capacities in terms of creating a hybrid area between the virtual and physical space.
2- Immersive Installations
In an article that was published in 2018, writer Charmaine Li announces that, if mobile AR apps are to reach $17 billion in revenue by 2021, as it is anticipated according to a recent report by the research company SuperData, it will be the first time ever for AR apps to surpass revenue generated by VR software. That is an important shift regarding the experience economy that we now live in. There will be considerably more companies investing in to fulfill user needs by trying to increase the number and variety of products providing different experiences.
After Google, Apple Company also announced that they are moving to a new campus at Hudson Yards in New York City,( New York Post,2019) therefore, they have been financially supporting many urban projects such as High Line and Hudson Yard Park. The first example of this paper, AR(t) Walks by Apple and New Museum (image 2) is an immersive urban art installations project from seven different artists located in several places in Central Park.
The second example, the Stonewall Forever “Living monument” (image 1) which is an AR monument dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, is yet another project that Google has invested in.
2.1. AR(T) Walk
Since most of the big technology firms are willing to make investments on AR technology we are witnessing partnerships with tech companies and museums or organizations. One of the biggest reasons why immersive installations are becoming popular depends on the budget that tech companies are investing in. That is a two-way interest.
AR(T) Walk is one of the projects that fit into these partnerships. Earlier this year, Apple Company and the New Museum have partnered for this project.
Director for the New Museum Lisa Phillips and Toby Devan Lewis commented about the project: “AR Medium ripe for dynamic and visual storytelling that can extend an artist’s practice beyond the studio or the gallery and into the urban fabric” supports my statement that the museum experience has been shifting and the city itself is becoming a museum.
Going back to the AR(t) Walks project, the walk takes us through Central Park and shows us different works of seven artists. Apple supplies all the equipment needed that includes an iPhone XR with the app installed and headphones. The walking tour is free for everyone. It is not possible to participate with any other phone, the AR app is not open for downloading individually which makes the experience kind of private and only for the registered people. ( Democratizing the art is open to discussion.)
Not only in AR(t) Walks but also in the Stonewall Forever example, the user experience basically depends on the mobile phone and the headphones, unlike the Stonewall Forever, this example is experienced in a group and with guides. Before starting the tour guides explain the steps of the AR technology method.
I will not be talking about each work rather I will focus on the items that make the design unique to the user experience. The term immersion plays an important role when it comes to overlapping physical and virtual space. There are a few terms that any AR mobile app depends on. The first step is the anchor point. Anchor point locks the virtual object to the exact physical environment. When the phone is directed to the anchor point the app starts to show us the artwork. (AndreasJackl, 2019)
During the walk, at different spots of Central Park, we stopped and aimed at the anchor point and experienced the artwork. In general, each anchor point could help us understand that we will be seeing another work, it acts as an introduction for the art piece. Although it interrupts the smooth interaction between viewers and the work (images 3–4).
The second tool is the mobile phone. To be able to see the work and interact with it, the mobile phone is needed all the time. Any interaction is provided by touching the instructions at the screen, moving the screen closer to the work or zooming out from the work. I realized in both examples even though we can have a 3D experience most of the works uses 2D interfaces for instructions. (image 5)
Image 5: 2D interfaces for instructions image 6: Photo and Video Capture
The third asset is headphones. Audio enhances the feeling of presence and makes us feel that the virtual object is almost physically standing in the real world.
For each work, Apple offered several places for artists to implement the work and they personally chose the place that fits better for their work. This makes each work unique to its place. Unlike the Stonewall Forever example, the work does not have a historical background and the only connection between the space and the work is described by the artist. It is up to users’ perception to create the memory of the space.
Each work of the walk ended with an open group discussion between participants, which made us think about our own perception of the work. Describing what we just experienced definitely strengthened our overall experience of the walk.
Another important feature of the AR(t) Walk app is that users could take photos and capture multiple 10-second videos (Image 6). Every time the anchor point activates the work, the app gave us two buttons to take a photo or capture a video. This feature of the app gives a chance to expand the experience when the walk is done and of course it helps to spread the word through social media.
After having one and a half-hour of quality time with our phones, we ended our walk and went back to the Apple Store at 5th Avenue where we started in the first place. We send the photos and videos we took with AirDrop to our own mobile phones and said goodbye to our peers.
The experience was highly interesting as it was an individual yet group walk.
2.2 The Stonewall Forever
The Stonewall Forever is an interactive “living monument” that is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The project aims to remind us about the history of LGBTQ rights in an immersive way.
In 1969 Stonewall Inn which was one of the few bars that LGBTQ people could gather without hiding was raided by the police early in the morning. (William Floyd, 2019 ) Riots against the police force that went on for days have sparked the LGBTQ rights movement and Gay Pride (Melissa Locker, 2019) and it raised awareness all around the world. (image 7)
On June 24, 2016, President Obama called the Stonewall National Monument as a US National Monument. The monument consists of Christopher Street Park and a block of Christopher Street which borders the park. It is situated in front of the Stonewall Inn. Gay Liberation Monument by George Segal was also installed in the park in 1992. The most important part about this monument is that it is the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history. The Stonewall Inn and the National Monument has strong ties with the place where the riots started.
The memory of the place creates a unique identity and symbolizes a very important movement for human rights. Therefore I was very curious about how an immersive monument can be implemented in this strong context.
The living monument can be visited through any device that has access to the internet. The experience is very satisfying through the laptop. Big typography and colorful flying 3D crystal shapes going up from the Christopher Street Park welcomed me at the main page. I followed the websites’ instructions to have the best experience and put my headphones on. (image 7)I heard the brief history of the monument and then it took me to the actual place with the help of Google street map images. I was in the park but actually, I was sitting in my room. I heard birds tweeting, people talking as if I was in the park. Then I hit the “Explore the Monument” button. Colorful crystals flew over towards me and I was literally in the monument, at my screen. User Interface was successfully implemented and I had no difficulties going through different stories. While I was jumping from one story to another, I could hear some interviews from the documentary which has been made for this monument. These interviews helped me to feel the spirit of the riots in a way that any other physical traditional monument could not achieve. The button on the screen also lets the user participate and add your own story to the immersive monument. The aim is very clear; to contribute to building new stories and to help the monument growing over time and slowly building a community.
In this context, I can make my statement that time plays an important role in the living monument. Unlike AR(t) works it is designed within a timeline that users can have a chronological experience but not as museum-like experience, it gives the feeling of a timeline through the 3D crystal-shaped historical capsules.
Overall it is a successful virtual experience but I do not feel the experience of the space. I can not see the monument from different angles, there is no chance to talk to anyone about my experience. On my laptop screen, I started to shape the memory and importance of space so I decided to go have an in situ practice.
For the mobile in situ experience, I needed to install the app on my phone. I could not do it because my phone did not support it. It made me think about technology can also be a constraint. I borrowed my friend’s phone, downloaded the app and went to Christopher Street Park. It was a peaceful afternoon, I sat on the bench observed people for a while. Local people were having some quiet time for themselves. Nobody paid attention to the AR monument. I saw tourists came and looked at the physical monument, they talked about the Stonewall Inn then left. I asked myself if the anchor point is a successful way to make people pay attention to the AR monument. It also interrupted the experience in AR(t) Walks as I stated before. Even though I went with the aim of seeing the immersive monument it was hard to follow the instructions. I couldn’t have the same smooth experience as I had with the laptop. I had to scan the QR code several times because the app did not work properly and in the end, the phone was out of battery. But for a few minutes, I experienced another dimension within the place. I had my own experience while others were looking at the same place I saw something else that they did not (image 8). I talked with my friend about the experience. We became aware of the place’s memory through the AR app. The AR technology would definitely increase the value of the space as it creates another layer. In a city like New York City, it is a great way to create new experiences for the public installations and give voice to different and hidden layers of the city. (Tuba Ozkan,2017)
There are many articles about immersive installations and digital tools are helping to reach more people than traditional installation works. In a traditional way, individuals need to invest some time to be able to understand the aim of the work. In the immersive experience, we consume the information in a package that doesn’t make us make an extra effort. I was curious about how successful the impact of the installation was.
I went through Google Reviews and typed different titles: Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, Stonewall National Monument. I could not find any mention of the Stonewall Forever Project, which made me question that even though the project was created by the huge support of Google who has granted 1.5 million dollars to the LGBTQ community center in New York (Yahoo News, 2019), the outcome of the project is still targeting only the community who has already have the knowledge and memory.
Depending on my own experience of both places and immersive installations, the use of AR technology in urban art installations definitely has a great potential for creating and revealing different stories of the city that would improve the user experience. Big technology companies’ interests in New York City also makes it a very valuable place for investing and taking advantage of technology to test and see the reactions of the people. By using public places and partnering with museums they reach more people to find out the effective features and drawbacks of the AR technology.
It is possible to say that even though both cases use the same technology there are significant differences in user experience. As we see in the Stonewall Forever ‘living monument’, the AR technology so far has not been using the context of the place as an input. The physical place was only a background for the digital experience. The use is becoming popular in art installations which are using the memory of the specific place and building a new experience on it. Therefore the ties between digital and physical places get stronger. I find it very valuable as it might become an important asset for future projects.
Even though, no matter how the app is designed in a very clear and easy to navigate way we still need some physical interaction within the place to fully engage with the work. What AR(t) Walks accomplishes successfully in the project is, as users get to experience the installation both individually and in a group, attendees still get a chance to discuss what they just experienced collectively. This physical experience still plays an important role in the project that a digital user interface could not achieve yet.
Overall, I think we will be seeing AR technology much more in the future for new areas of use and experiences as it provides a great infrastructure for merging digital and physical spaces.
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