This past week I attended the Lilly Website Consultation, a yearly gathering of program leaders from projects funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. whose work includes significant web presence. I was fortunate enough to talk with the participants about the work of the New Media Project and to share many of our findings and recommendations. I was even more fortunate to listen in as other folks working at the intersection of new media and church and new media and theological education shared insights from their work and their prognosis of where “new media things” are headed.
And “things,” it turns out, is the operative word. John Weaver, Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology at Abilene Christian University (which, in full disclosure, is one of the case study sites for the New Media Project), gave a presentation on technology and higher education, but with much broader implications than just for education alone. Drawing on the 2012 New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report, John pointed to three key ways new technologies are interacting with reality to transform the way we learn, think, analyze, and share information and experiences: by simulating reality, by stimulating reality, and by augmenting reality.
Most of us probably have some idea what the first two mean. Video games, especially whole-world immersive games, simulate reality: they create parallel realities out of digital media that immerse the user into life-like experiences. These are the kind of games (like World of Warcraft) that people play for 17 hours straight because they are so realistic and engaging. Other technologies don’t take us into an entirely immersive digital reality, but they do stimulate our reality by blending with it, enhancing it, offering new outlets for it. In a very basic way, many aspects of social media might function this way, like live-Tweeting or posting to Facebook during an event while also being present. Rather than distracting us from reality, these activities stimulate our engagement with it in new and different ways.
The final category—augmenting reality—is probably a bit less known. Augmented reality refers to overlaying a real-life image or object with digital content—literally enhancing or augmenting lived, non-digital reality. For example, a production studio could overlay a printed movie poster with digital content (like the movie trailer) so that anyone with an augmented reality application on her smartphone or tablet would automatically see this content when she held her device up to the poster. The world of everyday objects becomes connected to the network of digital content, creating “an Internet of things.”
Like many aspects of new media, users of augmented reality programs can create digital layers for any object he or she wants, as well as view layers created by other users, whether they be other individuals or corporations. Pedagogically, this means that a student could create digital layers of a map of Louisiana, with streaming video of Mardi Gras parades, historical timelines, wildlife profiles, and narratives from Katrina survivors (you can watch a video of this in action at a real elementary school). This content would represent the depth of connections the student had created through other means of study and would also be available to other students.
More broadly speaking, if this technology becomes widely prevalent, it has the potential to re-orient the way we experience our world. We would no longer have to open up Wikipedia on our smartphones or wait until we get to a computer to learn more about that strange statue we passed on our walk home or the history of a building we encounter on vacation. We could simply hold our phone up to the “thing” in the world and watch digital content unfold. The line between “virtual reality” and “real reality” would blur even more than it already does.
John closed his session by asking all the program leaders present to think about how the work they do could be informed or transformed by these new technologies. This may be an even more pressing question for the church to ask. Christians know a lot about reality transformed by grace. How would we bring that to augmented reality?
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
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