by Barry Chudakov on February 22nd, 2010

Mapping As A Metalife

In a recent TED talk, Blaise Aguera Y Arcas demonstrated what he calls ‘augmented reality maps.’ Blaise is an architect at Microsoft Live Labs. His mission: redefining how maps work online. For centuries a map has been a static document. In his book Ambient Findability, Peter Morville says, “Maps reflect and shape the beliefs of a community or civilization…. For many centuries, maps and mapmakers played a powerful role in defining the elements and edges of the known world.”

 

Credit: World Map 1689-No1, Flickr, Caveman 92223

Credit: World Map 1689-No1, Flickr, Caveman 92223

With augmented reality maps, the elements and edges of the known world are changing dramatically. Imagine the revolution in our consciousness and perspective when you can go into the map on a virtual fly-through, then see and talk live to a colleague on the ground in the map—in the place you’re mapping—to tell you about what’s there. The map becomes a newscast.

Imagine further that the map is no longer a static representation of a place, a city, a village, a country, but an experience—and by accessing the map you enter the experience. With the advent of photography and then video, mapping moved from cartography to imagery. With the advent of augmented reality, cartography moves into the realm of virtual worlds. Aguera Y Arcas describes the map as “a canvas on which all sorts of applications can play out.” Everything from hyper-local blog references to before-and-after versions of a disaster location. In essence, you bring all the meta data about the location and the world around it to you.

But more than that, the map becomes an interactive, living playground rather than a symbolic destination. This “livingness” of information allows entry into the destination. That capacity affects both the destination and those granted entry. We no longer think of a map as a representation of the territory, at a gut level it is the territory now, with live reporter/correspondents providing a narrative of what’s happening on the ground. In a flash, static documentation moves from estimate to capture; from reference to eyewitness.

 

Bing Maps, Beta Streetside, Rodeo Drive: Streetside™ features 360-degree ground-level zooming and 3D imagery, with hovering street labels so users don’t get lost, and a compass and overview map to track direction and movement.

Bing Maps, Beta Streetside, Rodeo Drive: Streetside™ features 360-degree ground-level zooming and 3D imagery, with hovering street labels so users don’t get lost, and a compass and overview map to track direction and movement.

 

For the purposes of this post, I am less interested in the Microsoft technology here, which is wonderful. Of greater interest to me is how augmented reality mapping gives a Metalife to buildings and streets, cities and towns, houses and fields. These destinations are no longer just the thing itself—say, a wall of a building in downtown San Diego: that wall becomes the setting for an important moment in someone’s life history, the background to another person’s romantic escapade, a memorial.

Maps are one of the oldest human instruments of exploration and discovery. With this new tool, we are embarking on a voyage as remarkable as anything we know from history books. When Leif Ericson, Christopher Columbus or Lewis and Clark used maps to guide them, the outer world surprised them with its variance from primitive available maps. With Google Maps and similar technologies using satellite and Photosynth imagery, we are no longer surprised by the outer world. We have that covered. But what will surprise us is the inner journey this launches. From any distance we can peer inside reality, seeing it anew. This changes the very intent of a map.

Formerly we employed a map to guide us in lieu of being there or knowing actually what there was. Augmented reality maps crack open our understanding with facts, of course—addresses and ancillary information, menus and directions. But that is just the beginning. The mirror worlds of Aguera Y Arcas’ maps present a Metalife of place. This place is layered, changing, alive. The map is no longer a two-dimensional guide to location. Our sense of the unknown effectively disappears: it is now a living movie, a world within a world. With this technology we have crossed a threshold, gone deeper into one of the oldest human endeavors—exploration itself. Now, instead of simply exploring there, we can explore the Metalife of there.

This is the counter-intuitive surprise of a mirror world. David Gelernter said mirror worlds generate ‘topsight,’ “what comes from a far-overhead vantagepoint, from a bird’s eye view that reveals the whole—the big picture; how the parts fit together.”

That is a stunning promise from a remarkably new take on one of our oldest human endeavors.

Here is the Blaise Aguera Y Arcas TED talk:

 

 

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