Apple takes art to city streets to augment reality

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 August 2019 13:56 GMT

The Apple augmented reality tool, active in six cities, superimposes digital images on landmarks but some fear a tech takeover of public space

By Adela Suliman

LONDON, Aug 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tech giant Apple is taking art out of the gallery and splashing it on the real world, creating playful, digital skylines with technology that critics fear could become sinister and invasive.

Fans said the Apple augmented reality (AR) tool - active in Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and San Francisco - improves real life, superimposing digital words and images on old landmarks.

But privacy watchers fear AR could become a tool that makes urban spaces playgrounds for corporations and financial gain.

The interactive art works - colourful words and images that whoosh over skylines and float above buildings - are part of an Apple tour that needs an app and smartphone.

Apple commissioned the art with the New York-based New Museum, creating works by seven poets and performers from Nick Cave to Carsten Hoeller.

A tour with Apple in London revealed frenetic rainbow text leaping over a lion statue in London's Trafalgar Square while an intricate factory production line rose from the concrete floor of Covent Garden.

Apple says the idea it dubs '[AR]T Walk' is a fun way to bring art to the people and augment big-city life.

But some fear a tech takeover of public space.

"We've got a new interface of the digital world and the actual world...that throws up questions about property rights," said Neil McDonnell, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience at the University of Glasgow.

"We are using it before thinking about it."

McDonnell said AR could present "huge opportunities" - offering virtual maps or letting officials see through tarmac to visualise broken pipes.

But it also lets firms collect "absolutely millions" of data points, he said, with potentially "terrifying" consequences.


The Apple project is similar to the AR phenomenon 'Pokemon Go' that exploded in 2016, unleashing millions of players into streets, offices and parks in search of animated characters.

The viral game blurred the distinction between digital and physical property rights, said experts, with some homeowners suing the game's makers for unwanted trespass.

Snap Inc another popular social media app, said this month it would launch a new version of its wearable Spectacles sunglasses that will let users upload images, often with augmented face filters, to the Snapchat platform.

"Delivering dynamically animated art...sounds exciting, but does it make sense and is it safe?" asked Robert Stone, director of human interface technologies at the University of Birmingham.

"One only has to witness the tunnel vision behaviours of smartphone users, glued to their precious product in dense urban areas, not to mention the injuries such behaviour causes."


AR could be a boon to city life, aiding navigation, traffic flow, tourism and emergency response, said Jennifer Morrissey of Dentons Smart Cities & Communities Think Tank, which helps cities leverage technology.

"AR can and absolutely should be used in smart cities and communities, and in many instances, it is already being used," said Morrissey.

AR is becoming rapidly more mainstream, amid innovation and better integration onto mobile devices, with the AR gaming market expected to reach a value of almost $300 billion by 2023, according to Infoholic Research.

Either way, it is set to stay.

"The potential uses of AR could be extremely sinister but I think the positives are so positive that we'll find it incredibly hard not to be seduced by them - very much like your mobile phone," said McDonnell.

(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit for more stories.)

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