Tourism, augmented reality and smart phones

Our local tourism group is exploring ways to enhance the experience for visitors to Talybont on Usk. One idea under discussion is the deployment of QR codes on the signs around the area enabling visitors (or at least those with smart phones AND a signal) the chance to augment the physical reality of the Brecon Beacons (rivers, canal, waterfalls, bike trails and hills) with in-depth information about the local history, wildlife or geography. But is this a good idea?

Unfortunately, QR codes suffer some awkward usability issues (even by people who know how to use them). But, even if they worked perfectly, perhaps the more interesting question is whether so-called “augmented reality” delivered via a mobile phone actually distracts from people’s immediate sensory, physical and mental engagement with their actual surroundings.

As a cognitive psychologist, I have always been interested in ‘transparent’ technology i.e. technology that doesn’t demand its users to attend to it but rather enables them to attend from (or through) it to the task in hand. The philosopher, Michael Polanyi talked about the power of a pen in writing in that regard or the physical articulation of words. If we focus on the feel of a pen in our hand, we no longer process the words we are writing with it. Similarly, if we focus on how our tongue and lips articulate a particular word, we can’t simultaneously parse that word’s meaning. It’s either or. Arguably, the most powerful technologies become invisible allowing us to focus our attention through them, not on them. As a recent Kindle user, I would say that Amazon are getting close to achieving that – I can almost (but not quite) focus my entire attention on the story and not notice the technology displaying the words.

Now, with augmented reality, the goal is a bit different. Here, the goal IS to add something to the physical experience and not simply enable it. But that can be a problem. Coming back to QR codes, a Graphic Designer friend recently visited the Roman remains at Caerleon where they have introduced QR codes to augment the visitor experience.

Unfortunately, what he witnessed was visitors totally absorbed in scanning QR codes or manipulating the touch screens on their smart phones. Meanwhile they weren’t even looking, touching, walking around or imagining life in the stunning remains of a Roman amphitheatre right in front of them!

Maybe, if augmented reality can manage to appear seamless with the physical reality, then the transparent technology principle can still operate. But, with a smart phone, I can see that’s tough to achieve. The biggest irony is that the old fashioned, single function, telephone (remember those?) used to be cited as the most compelling example of a technology which was totally transparent enabling us to attend 100% to the conversation it enabled. How times have changed!

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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