A Dream About Augmented Reality Fiction

Last night I dreamed that one of my authors (no name or face that I can recall – one of the phantasms created by the half-waking imagination) had sold me rights to a novel he’d written, and was eager for me to publish it as an ebook. It turned out that the “ebook” we were developing was actually a movie that took place in an augmented reality overlay projected directly onto the mind’s eye, mixing what the author had imagined with what the viewer was actually seeing and experiencing at the time. Every version of the movie was different, because the story had to be overlaid on what the viewer was encountering in the real world. At one point in the dream, Eric Schmidt of Google was particularly excited because a sailing scene in the story warned him about a hidden reef that his boat had to avoid.

I don’t often share dreams on this blog (at least not sleeping dreams), but this one seemed worth putting out there, because I do think that augmented reality could be an important component of a new kind of storytelling, making today’s 3D entertainments as dated as silent films. Elan Lee’s Fourth Wall Studios is already chipping away at the barrier between storytelling and daily life. The first augmented reality entertainments may be text based rather than video; eventually, though, they will likely be as immersive as my dream.

Many years ago, I saw a play in LA called Tamara, a story set in the mansion where WWI hero and author Gabrielle D’Annunzio was held under house arrest by Mussolini. A fascinating experiment in theater, Tamara took place in many different rooms of the house. As an audience member, whenever a scene ended, you had an opportunity to follow the character of your choice to another room. No audience member could see the entire play. My wife and I went with her parents (who were back for the third or fourth time, seeing parts of the play they’d missed on previous visits), and afterwards, we all compared notes for hours about what we’d seen, and what we’d missed.

street view on the phone
I share this dream as a reminder that the fiction and entertainments of the future may have a very different form than the fiction of today. The first metamorphosis is just to change the medium, in the way that the paper map or atlas morphed first into online mapping sites. But eventually, we’ll get much deeper, as mapping is today morphing into augmented reality layers (from Yelp reviews or Foursquare check-ins to Google Street View) superimposed on walking or driving directions delivered on a phone.

This is the kind of world we’re exploring at the Where 2.0 Conference next month. I don’t believe there are any talks on augmented reality fiction (@brady, correct me if I’m wrong), but there might as well be. The world we’re entering is going to be as rich and strange as last night’s dream.

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  • Mark Essel

    Glad to see your having “far out” dreams. As little sense as it all makes when your conscious mind retakes the driver’s wheel, that raw creativity is inspiring. Virtual reality looks like it’s going to come in the form of augmented reality first. That’s great as we use a stepping stone to make some headway.

  • @netwurker

    interesting that the dream included traditional publishing methodology [selling the rights] only to be followed by such a leap in execution of the actual material [augmented plot dependent on geolocation].

    i’m current working out the logistics of “publishing” an augmented stream of my wurks with a small publish house [my wurks are already open-ended (see netwurker.com) so are entirely applicable to the type of format reffed in your dream].

  • The Name Inspector

    Interesting dream, Tim. This isn’t exactly augmented reality, but Seattle-based fiction writer Ryan Boudinot is distributing a new collection of related short stories by geocaching them. People who find them are expected to read them in the locations where they’re found. Here’s his introductory blog post about the project: http://boudinot.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/ryan-boudinots-geocaching-project/

  • nic

    Very interesting. Most AR applications I hear about are so lame… Even the games are still short from start exploring the possibilities. You thougt of a nice possible path to explore. And the best part is it will definitely need the kind of environment awereness that is completely lacking in the “GPS+compass” AR. Computer Vision FTW!

  • Kirk Jackson

    Funny, two blogs posts in my reader in as many weeks that refer to the play Tamara — obviously it made an impact on people!



  • William Roth

    I always wanted a game that used cell phones / e-mail as a way to enhance the game experience. A game is played real-time but during the day while you are at work your character calls you with some important info. Later in the day the evil villain e-mails you telling you to stay far away. You could even e-mail him back asking questions related to the game. Talk about total immersion.

  • Michael Nielsen

    Much of Vernor Vinge’s excellent novel “Rainbows End” (no apostrophe) is about augmented reality and entertainment. Well worth reading, in my opinion!

  • David Hawley

    Following Einstein’s abolishing the God’s eye view in physics,
    we abolish it in media as soon as we develop the means.
    What a grand social experiment, this splintering of our shared experience.

  • Gerald Huff

    Your description reminds me of alternate reality gaming, with its mix of fiction and the real world. With ARG, of course, there’s no clear separation between audience and actors.

  • Daisy Grisolia

    Is it something like the HOLODECK (in Startreck – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodeck)? One man can imagine, another man can do it!

  • Daniel Demel

    @Michael Nielsen I totally agree. I was thinking of the same book when reading about Tim’s dream. Really a great science fiction novel.

  • Michael Holloway

    I attended a play in 1983 where the audience was constantly on stage, in the sets the actors were playing off of. From the back dressing rooms of the theatre, to at one point, seated on the play houses stage facing empty seats, watching the actors ‘rehearse’ the director sitting about 15 rows back, as they usually do acting out his part from the seats we expected to be sitting in. We never did.

    The final scene was spectacular, in the lobby of the theatre we watched as two players who had fallen out, parted ways. As the hero left via the theatre’s front doors, the curtains were drawn from the windows of the lobby. The adrenaline that resulted from the change in the quality of light added a tactile, real world sensibility. We watched as the actor crossed the street and walked down the road into the sunset. Gorgeous!

    The suspension/non-suspension of the fantasy with-in the theatre counter pointed by the scene with-out and took us all by surprise. Post Modernism in nth ways. And a memory foreshadow of the future of story telling your dream created for me now.

    Michael Holloway

  • Alex Tolley

    @Michael Nielsen I’ll third you on that. Same thought entered my mind too as I read Tim’s piece.

  • Justin Gibbs

    It’s great to see more people starting to see the possibilities for storytelling opening up. For the last 20 years it’s only been a very small group plugging away at it (Chris Crawford being one). It’s usually the technology that draws people in, however they quickly learn that it’s still mostly about storytelling and story is difficult. It’s even more difficult when you add some new technology.

    Rather than worry about the technology I think it’s more important to worry about the audience. You’ll get early adopters with a nifty technology trick but new mediums are created when they appeal to mainstream audiences. And right now it seems social games have captured that mainstream audience. I’d suspect that the future of entertainment will evolve out of the social game industry, and more along the lines of visual novels and dating sims popular in Japan.


  • Alderete

    Another good novel making extensive use of augmented reality within the plot is _Daemon_ and _Freedom™_ by Daniel Suarez. (The novel is split across two books, but it’s one continuous story, and a good one at that.)

  • zack

    this dream is not far off! check out this crazy new augmented reality tattoo that will surely be implemented widely soon!

  • Evelyn Rodriguez

    I thoroughly agree with Gerald — this so reminds me of ARGs, as well as Blast Theory/Mixed Reality Labs’ kind of games.

    I did a Powerpoint presentation for Ignite on future of interactive art, and my slant is that writers and performance artists will begin to create new art forms and be among the first artists to abolish the arbitrary, theatrical “fourth wall” creating a new type of storytelling that is more akin to your Tamara immersive experience – thus, a sense of dwelling within the story, or storydwelling.

    The IgniteNOLA Powerpoint with full notes are online http://bit.ly/ignite2020

    Also, I’m trying to get these related “storydwelling” projects off the ground as well, http://bit.ly/zinekick and http://bit.ly/nolagame

  • @localolo_com

    Augmented reality / GPS gaming is what we are experimenting with at localolo.com. Magic Maze for Android is our first game that explores the possibilities of GPS and gaming not bound to any particular location.

  • Evelyn Rodriguez

    I have to add that this concept of “mixing what the author had imagined with what the viewer was actually seeing and experiencing at the time” reminds me so much of the illustrated primer in The Diamond Age, as it seemed to anticipate where the fiction needed to unfold to be real-life relevant just before Nell needed to know it.

  • jeremy hight

    interesting dream

    I will be talking about AR at where 2.0

    and have just finished a book chapter on the possibilities of ar publishing and writing , fictions, poetry, essays…..even how to search and place writings of places into a sort of visual search as well as ar writings…

    will come out soon online in the networked book

    also how to publish within maps,and do writing contests in places like where route 66 once was

  • jeremy hight

    just came out ..Writing within the Map” writing,ar,historical precedents of spatial augmentation


  • David Gray

    Thanks! Helped me solve a social film!