The Wild Compatibility of Environmentalism and Augmented Reality

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Today, March 24th 2017, is the occasion of the eleventh annual Earth Hour, in which people all over the world are encouraged to turn off all non-essential lights for one hour in the evening. It has picked up support from corporations and organizations worldwide, including Hilton, Philips, and even FIFA. Historical landmarks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites also take part every year by switching off. The whole act allows us a chance to reflect on how much electricity we consume and the necessity of it in our lives.

Here at the Displar Blog, it also gives us a chance to ask a tricky question: How can augmented reality technology be compatible with the environment? True interaction with nature requires physical and mental presence without barriers, whereas AR technologies would introduce a mediating device that possibly interferes and introduces a barrier, right?

The more technology has advanced, the more we have gotten cynical about it. We fret over the possibility that we are becoming disconnected from the tangible world around us as we incorporate more of these innovations into our lives. One of the greatest benefits of augmented reality, which might be overlooked by a lot of people, is that it mollifies this cynicism. We can make AR work in such a way that it educates people and promotes the understanding and importance of our nature by connecting us to it in a way we’ve never been before.

The plan to making this work is two-pronged, with the first prong being more passive. Swedish furniture retailer IKEA – another supporter of Earth Hour – launched their Place app last fall, a virtual catalog that allows you (and me, too; I’m an IKEA fiend) to place virtual models of their furniture in a physical space. It’s notable for being the first non-gaming hit in the realm of augmented reality apps, having garnered acclaim from Wired, Engadget and The Verge. After an initial release in the Apple App Store in September, the Android version finally hit the streets this week.

Though this is just the initial official release of IKEA Place, it signals a further push toward the goal of a world without paper by eliminating the need to print catalogs. Furthermore, it is a goal that gives an incentive for all of us to strive toward that goal by giving us a snazzy new app to play around with, not to mention fresh inspiration for home design by allowing us to visualize furniture wherever we want it.

But what about interacting with nature? What about learning from that interaction? What about making nature accessible to those whose environments and means of living do not afford them such a privilege? This is where AR technologies can prove truly indispensible. The University of California-Davis is spearheading the Lake Visualization 3D project, a dynamic education tool that superimposes geological and topographical images and information upon a sandbox, and then uses motion-sensor technology to render changes in those same images.

As Earth and Science News explains:

When the camera senses an object (such as a hand) at a specified height above the sand surface, virtual rain appears below the object as a blue dynamically changing texture on the sand. A flow simulation model moves the water across the landscape in accordance with the laws of motion and the boundary conditions provided by the shape of the sand. The virtual water slowly disappears as the simulation computes its infiltration into the soil, or it can be drained rapidly with a push of a physical button or computer key.

When we talk about AR, we’re not just talking about experiencing the world secondhand through the use of a device, tantalizing as that may be. It is a technology that allows you to touch and form the physical world – not the virtual one – with the augmentation being an intermediary layer giving you extra information that allows you to see the effects of your actions on a macro scale. When you realize the impact of your being on the state of the world, what’s more powerful than that?

And what about YOU? Do you know of any other dynamic, thought-provoking uses of AR that allow us to rethink our relationship to the environment? Where do you see the relationship between environmentalism and augmented reality technology going? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also, be sure to participate in tonight’s Earth Hour event. No, it won’t save the world, but it may give your brain a jolt to consider the ways in which you use energy and spark some ideas as to how you can contribute to eco-friendly changes we are all making together. And of course, thank you for reading.