The Background - Yet Another Movie Influences My Views
Great stories have the ability to make one re-examine what one knows and come up with radically different ways of looking at the same things. It is these kinds of reexaminations that leads us to shift the way we think, speak, and do. Of all movies, I didn't expect Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to be a catalyst for me rethinking how I view augmented reality; the story plays out like a manga and realism is pushed aside for metaphorical expressionism during the whole film.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a millennial-targeted typical "boy meets girl, boy and girl both have issues to deal with" story. The issues are externalized in the form of stylized video game / kung fu battles told in a very manga fashion. The movie continues a recent tradition of augmenting the movie with information - like a video game where one sees a score rise up from a defeated opponent, grabbing a 1-up, or a graphic novel / manga onomatopoeia. I say continues because see this kind of thing at least as far back as Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman tells John Travolta not to "be a square" while drawing it on screen with dotted lines momentarily breaking the fourth wall. Or you can go back to the original Adam West version of the television show Batman for "KAPOW" on screen. More recently I saw it in Stranger Than Fiction and then there's the whole resurgence of comic book / graphic novel movies that have been ultra-successful. (Iron Man, Sin City, V for Vendetta, The Watchmen, Spiderman, etc)
It's the complete ignoring of how crazy and unreal things are that is key. This isn't a comic book story where the hero is some super-genius billionaire who builds a custom battle suit and goes fighting crime when their fortune could be used to do far, far more good. (I'm looking at you, Batman and Iron Man - you know you're basically the same superhero, right?) This takes place in the suburbs to regular people that we're supposed to relate with, not raise on a pedestal. This isn't even like Spiderman, where Peter Parker is clearly an average nerd-boy blessed with superpowers. So when our hero Scott Pilgrim doesn't blink in squaring off in battle against his first "evil ex" of his new girlfriend, but still complains that this is something completely ludicrous, it actually makes perfect sense.
Hold on. I need to embed the trailer now. *pauses*
And it's one of the few movies whose trailer pretty accurately depicts what the movie is about.
Augmented Reality and Expressionism
Augmented Reality, in exposing various forms of data, may actually bring us closer to the underlying truth of a situation. In Scott Pilgrim vs The World, augmented content exposes a millennial zeitgeist through images, text, and audio effects sounds. The *feeling* of situations is expressed in a way that our real, physical world cannot, but is nevertheless true in our hearts, minds, and souls. How does one express the feeling of a magical first kiss with another person, especially when the physical act of kissing obstructs the view of our primary gateway to reading emotions - faces, and eyes are generally closed as well? Add some hearts streaming out from the lip-lock. How does one express the burning rage of revenge in telling off someone who's done you great harm? A flaming sword and an epic battle will do, nicely. Scott Pilgrim vs The World takes advantage of the movie medium as a form of expressionism to reveal these sorts of emotions in greater detail.
But why stop at the more literally expressionism of hearts for love and samurai swords for righteous anger? I think back to the Beatles masterpiece Yellow Submarine as a truly brilliant reality-bending story rooted deeply on expressing the zeitgeist of that generation, and the emotion that music can evoke but so rarely can be captured on the silver screen? Here the expressionism goes abstract, with some more literal metaphors (the Nowhere Man, the Blue Meanies for authority, etc) and some well, trippy. The latter we see in the psychedelic trip in the performance of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the bizarre undersea world in which the cartoon Beatles travel, and yes, how the words to All You Need Is Love literally scroll out across the sky and interact with the physical world. Is the world in Yellow Submarine real? No, and yes. It's the Beatles taking a lot of drugs, on one hand, and it's also the multimedia expression by the artists of arguably the greatest music produced in the 20th century, on the other.
The point I am making is that augmented reality is really another form of expressionism, this time one that's highly literal in its data. If I hold up my smart phone up to a restaurant, and it displays a short summary review and a link to more data, is that real? In one sense, it's literally true - this is contextual data about the restaurant. In another sense, it's more real that what I see - that restaurant has been visited by many patrons, each with their own real experiences, and the reviews that come up are a taste of those experiences. And I could not have accessed and experienced that taste without the augmented reality. The phone is a portal to this data. Augmented reality on a smart phone acts as a tool of expressionism in which contextual data is brought out of the ether.
A Harbinger of Things To Come
I have many friends and colleagues working with augmented reality and social media and agree that it will continue to grow. But I think we will all be surprised at the scope at just how pervasive it will become. Because Augmented Reality is an extension of expressionism, it's more than just a new technological wonder. In fact, it's not a technological discovery, it's something implicitly embedded in human thinking, that technology has slowly been able to evolve to express in more complex and accessible ways.
Augmented Reality has been here with us forever, actually. Look at the definition of Augmented Reality - it is contextual information laid out on top of the "real" physical world. By this definition, we can look back to the dawn of civilization. Language is the most basic, ancient form of AR, where our words both express and sculpt the word. One might even agree that language makes possible all acts of civilization itself. And through history, all sorts of means of communication have been layered on top of our physical world to add reality.
So now we live in an age where we can manipulate reality by putting the physical world on a screen and adding images, text, sound, and video on top of it. In another 5 years, we'll have Heads Up Display glasses that will do the same thing; first they'll start as important tools for jobs, but like computers in the 90s, they'll spread from our jobs to our common life. Then in 10 years, we'll have contact lenses that do the same thing - in fact, they're already being tested in the earliest stages. Imagine the applications people will write for these! Data for almost anything, customization for how we view the world - I should do a blog post just listing the possibilities, but a few off the top of my head:
- - Automatic facial recognition and linking to peoples' social network profiles.
- - Scavenger Hunt games based on what you see - like "spot the VW beetle"
- - Enhanced target acquisition for soldiers
- - Jobs that have complex sets of parts will have them all labeled / highlighted, such as in surgery, auto mechanics, or watch repair.
- - Construction supervisors seeing how pieces of building are supposed to be constructed and being able to compare to the actual work.
- - Visual E-mail
So Don't Mock Scott Pilgrim
So for those people who "didn't get" Scott Pilgrim vs The World, take notice. There's a generation of people in their mid-30s and younger who get this stuff, intuitively. You've got about 5 - 10 years to learn this stuff before it's mainstream and part of your job. This isn't some new fad, this is something based on the very essence of what it means to think and communicate thoughts with other human beings. Scott Pilgrim may be goofy, and you may think Michael Cera has only one character he plays, but the augmented reality as expressionism displayed in the movie is a harbinger of things to come.