Paul Hanrahan
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Google Lens is the next generation of augmented reality and the possibilities are endless, including political and cultural disruption.

Last month, at I/O 17, Google revealed its new Google Lens app and it’s been causing quite a stir.

Google Lens uses powerful AI technology to understand what’s in front of a user and relay additional information about the scene. This could be anything from a famous building, to helping you identify that bird in your garden, to reading the complex password on the back of the wifi router and automatically logging you on. Simply point your smartphone and whatever the camera sees, the Lens app will interpret and put it to work.

Importantly, the information it relays goes beyond just telling you what you’re looking at. For an arts venue it could offer useful facts like opening times, history or reviews.

Augmented reality

This is the next generation of augmented reality, or AR. While it might feel like a breakthrough, Google has been looking into this for years. Google Glass was its first foray – a head-mounted display that provided information to the user through a tiny screen in front of their field of vision. The Lens app moves away from this extra hardware and brings the technology back to our smartphones.

In 2016 we had another AR phenomenon: Pokémon Go. This was the killer app that got hoards of people using AR, with an estimated 650 million downloads to date. Players used their smartphones to find and catch virtual creatures in the real world as wild Pikachus appeared on their walk to school.

Of course the game is fun to play. But Pokémon Go had another unintended consequence. It brought visitors into public spaces like museums and galleries to find rare Pokémon, including Edinburgh Zoo which was listed in the top ten places in the UK. Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology in London recognised this use of cultural spaces  – known as Pokéstops in the game – as a welcome gift to the sector which ought to be embraced.

Cardwell Garden Centre in Inverclyde saw it as a savvy promotional opportunity to increase visitors to their business. The V&A dug a little deeper by investigating how the mapping technology could be used for potential wayfinding options within their buildings.

Google Lens could have its own impact on user behaviour – one that has potential for the cultural sector. A popular AR system like Google Lens could democratise access to information, promote new levels of audience engagement and provide great incentive to explore and experiment.

Public stories

It’s already allowing people to tell their own stories in real world spaces. ‘The Whole Story’ in New York commemorates women’s achievements by placing virtual statues in public spaces, while elsewhere artists are using AR to impose new artwork over old.

A note of caution though. Not all of these new applications will inspire universally positive reactions. As the technology develops, organisations will need to take the time to understand how audiences interpret AR and respect the spaces and history if they choose to apply it.

An article in The Conversation discusses how one user of AR technology was accused of sacrilege inside a church, leading to his imprisonment. However the technology has equally been praised for its creative application by women and the LGBT community in sites of entrenched patriarchy and homophobia.

The possibilities are exciting. Imagine if visitors could use their own smartphones to find out about exhibits on their own path through a museum display or site specific theatre. A wealth of information would be actionable and accessible with the minimum of fuss or bother.

Pinterest zooms in

In February, Pinterest also got on board with AR technology when they released their own beta version of a similar Lens app. The app has been dubbed a game-changer by marketers, as it can be used to gather user information and work in tandem with automated marketing technology.

Watch this space to see how the public, businesses and of course cultural institutions help evolve our use and understanding of augmented reality.

Main image credit: DIY Augmented Reality, MoMA NY by sndrv (CC BY 2.0)