Google Glass and the Evolution of Urbanism

Google Field Trip is the ninth application approved for use on Google Glass’ Explorer edition. Field Trip takes its cues from a line of augmented reality applications already developed by museums and historical societies to digitally deliver interesting, factual content about notable sites via mobile device.

Glass is intermixing augmented reality and urban living in new ways, and the subsequent user experience may signal a shift in urban modernity somewhat akin to what Charles Baudelaire noticed upon Napoleon’s drastic redesign of the city of Paris. Given Google’s resources and ubiquity, Field Trip may become the application to again fundamentally change the way urbanites experience their recreational space.

A Paris Street, Rain. Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago

Image from ARTstor: A Paris Street, Rain. Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago

Baudelaire articulated a shift in urban existence and recreation during Napoleon’s reconstruction of Paris in the 1860s, when he described the flâneur, an anonymous observer and participator. Baudelaire noted in “The Painter of Modern Life” that “to be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world” was part of the passionate flâneur’s experience[1]. As such, flânerie came to mean idle strolling through a city.

Flânerie signaled an enhancement in urban living as more and more urbanites with leisure time felt as though they were a part of Paris. Arguably, the quality of any space is bound up in its potential for meaningful or significant experiences. Field Trip could make any location valuable by pointing out its historical value to wayfarers and wanderers.

John Hanke, the Google developer also responsible for the start-up that produced Google Earth, foresees Field Trip taking away the “scariness of being in an unfamiliar place.” But as more and more unintentional daily discoveries become premeditated, and more corners of our world and our cities are mapped and interpreted, what will fundamentally change about “outdoor” wanderings?

Augmented reality is not a new trend. Public humanists, museum curators, and archivists have designed augmented reality applications on mobile devices for some time, including Street Museum, History Pin, and hundreds of QR code activated walking tours, in order to curate real world exhibits. These build on educational, historical, or artistic multimedia installations already in public spaces like subway or metro stops. But Field Trip integrates existing digital, educational resources with local restaurants, venues, live events, and local deals from popular discount websites to the mix, and delivers them in real time.

If Field Trip is running on an Android, iPhone, or on Google Glass as a user peruses a city, she or he will be alerted via a museum-style, push notification label on their device or Glass about a nearby important or historical location. Hanke envisions Field Trip alerting people about long-standing, even historic local businesses, eateries and heritage sites, not only large commercial enterprises[2]. In this way, the application may encourage local businesses to curate narratives about themselves to project historical value to potential clientele, or it may encourage local historical sites to promote themselves using discounts or deals.

However, since Field Trip amasses content from local blogs, the application could attribute a single narrative to a local place, when in reality, it is a dynamic community gathering space. Also, the virtual label may appear many minutes before the person wearing Glass or carrying the device arrives at or passes a location, so it is not yet seamless or organic discovery.

The flâneur in Baudelaire’s writing participated by observing the city; the Google Glass wearing flâneur experiences a city that actively reacts and participates back. The implications of this shift are seen through a simple example. Imagine the unique experience of finding hypothetical local joint, Patty’s Pancakes, by chance. Upon entering, imagine striking up a conversation with the owner’s niece to discover that the original Patty was a trailblazing activist in the ‘30s who reformed early childhood care in the state and made the best peanut butter chocolate chip waffles. Now imagine scenario two, in which Google pre-scans hundreds of prominent local blogs to create a list of repeatedly blogged locations. Then Google generates a description of Patty’s Pancakes, which is a 4.5-star rated cultural-historical location. The description automatically flashes up on the Glass-wearer’s screen, potentially interrupting her mid-jaunt. The second experience is more controlled and disruptive, but ultimately, it may enhance the urban experience for more people overall. For this reason, some reviewers claim they would only use the application whilst on vacation[3]. But for those who keep the application running on their device, Field Trip could operate like a 24/7 360° museum minus curatorial intentionality.

Glass technology’s press and momentum presents the possibility for the Google Field Trip to completely redefine urban retreats. As early as 2010, meeting minutes on museum and technology groups’ public wikis showed that Google would be a big player in the future of museums, museum collaboration, and visitors’ experiences[4]. But could Google be the ultimate deconstructing force in urban recreation? Will public humanists and curators need to design exhibits that can also disrupt people daily activities in hopes for attention and participation?

Baudelaire’s flâneur became a popular motif for city planners and urban scholars studying how the city’s environment influences its inhabitants. Walter Benjamin used the term to analyze how Paris’ arcades and wider streets allowed for urban modernity and enabled the flâneur to quietly feel part of the crowd and the city. If Field Trip allows the city to speak for itself, to directly engage the observer, rather than letting intentional, interpersonal interactions dictate the experience of a city, urbanites – constantly disrupted but constantly familiarized, at work or at play – may soon experience “Flanerie 2.0.”

For more on the “flâneur” and its historical interpretations: Gluck, Mary. Popular Bohemia : Modernism And Urban Culture In Nineteenth-Century Paris. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web.

Feature Image from ARTstor: A Paris Street, Rain. Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago

This blog originally appeared in gnovis Journal on October 6, 2013.

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