Elastic reality

This week my young colleague Yuichiro Takeuchi presented ClayVision: The (Elastic) Image of the City, winner of a best paper award this year at SIGCHI, describes a system that lets you look “through” an iPad screen into an altered world. The image recorded by the back-facing camera is digitally processed, permitting you to see the city around you in interestingly distorted ways. Buildings can grow, shrink or sprout awnings, tall towers can spring from fountains, monuments can sway and dance, crooked streets can become straight.

There is a potential dark side to such an elastic reality, given that it is a lot easier to engineer the virtual than it is to engineer the physical. Think of the wholesale transition in Hollywood movies over the course of the last two decades from model miniatures to computer graphic special effects.

One day, after we are all wearing our eccescopic contact lenses, and the ability to visually transform our world becomes an everyday reality, perhaps civic engineers will no longer bother to keep our cities in good repair, beyond the minimal need to prevent structural collapse.

As long as we are all “wearing”, we will find ourselves sharing a golden age of gleaming towers, graceful airships that soar serenely above candy colored trees, and clear blue lakes that reflect the movements of glittering sculptures in the sky. Needless to say, this lovely cityscape will change every day for our collective pleasure and delight.

But anyone thoughtless enough to pop out their hi-tech contact lenses will be faced with a bleak reality of neglected buildings with shattered windows facing cracked and blackened sidewalks, where piles of uncollected garbage roll through the gray and rotting streets. Not that anybody would ever be so foolish as to take out their contact lenses.

After all, when was the last time, after having enjoyed a great meal at a favorite restaurant, that you demanded to go back to the kitchen to confront the underlying reality?

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