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These Seattle AR Pioneers Want to Connect You to the City of the Future

By Elke Hautala

What will you see on a walk through the city of the future?

Seattle and Shoreline are both seeking to answer this question through public art using augmented reality (AR). Accessible to anyone with a smart phone or tablet, it differs from virtual reality because it enhances the user’s experience of the actual world.

Picture this: you’re walking into the Olympic Sculpture Park by the waterfront in Seattle. Gravel crunches under your feet. A gust of wind from Puget Sound makes a lonely whistle in your ear. You become hyperaware of several people entranced around you looking into the sky. Then you see it.

Gigantic pink flowers bloom right before your eyes. Vines tangle and whirr like helicopter propellers from a tall building on the skyline. You wonder is this a dream of some prehistoric era gone mad?

Welcome to the future. At least a vision of the future by renowned artist Tamiko Thiel.

It’s called Gardens of the Anthropocene and it involves using AR to create an incredible world of mutated native plants in a dystopian future of urban growth. Tamiko explains to me that it’s like any great Sci-Fi creation grounded in a certain amount of scientific fact but then pushed beyond those boundaries to fantastical realms.

Tamiko has spent quite a bit of time in Seattle even though her home base is in Germany. She loves how, “Seattleites are very inspired by tech”. Her career began at the opposite end of the spectrum in mechanical engineering and product design after graduating from MIT.

As fascinating as engineering was…it had a very narrow focus. I wanted to know more about the world and how society worked…how people worked.”

She loved how being an artist allowed her to imagine wild fantasies and then figure out a way to manifest them to let other people share in her vision. With her early roots in engineering, she was always interested in what tech could do for artists. She began working with augmented reality in 2010 after a foray into virtual reality in the 1990’s.

Scale and reach are two of the reasons that she gives for why a piece like Gardens of the Anthropocene would have been difficult to do in traditional mediums. She also describes a surprising aspect of social interaction. The Seattle Art Museum put up kiosks with posters showing visitors how to access the AR. When Tamiko observed people at the exhibit, there was a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that led them to interact with each other over their shared discovery.

Not all AR is about facing our future – dystopian or otherwise. History also gets a chance to shine through both Tamiko’s project Brush the Sky and a new project from the City of Shoreline called, Augmented Nature. Working in collaboration not only with the Wing Luke Asian Museum but also with her mother (an award-winning calligraphy artist), Tamiko uses four generations of her family history in a city wide AR piece juxtaposing flower art and beautiful brush strokes with the Seattle skyline.

David Francis, the public art coordinator at the City of Shoreline, envisions both a social aspect and historical context to their Augmented Nature exhibit. He wants “to bring tech to a challenging space – an urban forest.” The recent winners of a 4 Culture tech specific grant, their plans include Boeing Creek Park, Shore View Park and also City Hall. Along with his tech coordinator Ray C. Freeman III, David has been working with places such as the Center for Contemporary Art for the better part of a decade.

He sees this as the next step in an ongoing artistic evolution. “People have been making art through the assistance of devices going back to the Renaissance Era”.

Not only will it bring people together but he also wants to add an unexpected element. “The boundary between humans and nature is illusory” David mentions. We’re used to seeing certain expected surroundings on our walks through the Northwest – grass, pine trees, clouds. He wants to play with this concept by allowing us to see into the past at the same time for an alternate reality.

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Our view of the park would suddenly also hold: A retreating glacier landscape, Chief Sealth with the Salish tribe or Boeing back in 1910 with his hunting buddies and their catch on what used to be his private hunting grounds. All of these are still in development with a scheduled unveiling in early 2018.

So what will our walks through the city in 2040 hold?

We could be interacting with the future and the past at the same time. We could be exploring art while exercising. We could be looking at our devices more but also talking to strangers more. At the very least, it will create a new way for humanity to connect with each other.

Perhaps, just for a glimpse, we’ll be able to see ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors … before we turn off our phone, walk away and move towards our own uncertain future.

Follow this link for more information on Tamiko Thiel and her groundbreaking work.

Find out more about the City of Shoreline’s Public Art and Freeman and Francis’ COCA show.

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