Designing Augmented Reality Experiences: Lean Forward or Lean Back?

Presently, for the most part, I believe Augmented Reality (AR) is a lean back experience and we need to move towards a lean forward model to drive AR into the future as a compelling, engaging new medium.

So what distinguishes these two media models? It comes down to a passive (lean back) versus active (lean forward) user experience. In 2008, Jakob Nielsen applied these terms to discuss the differences between the Web and television. He described the Web as an active lean forward medium, where “users are engaged and want to go places and get things done.” In comparison, he described the television as a lean back passive medium where, “viewers want to be entertained. They are in relaxation mode and vegging out; they don’t want to make choices.” In a 2011 talk at the mCommerce Summit in New York Steve Yankovich, Vice President of eBay Mobile, referred to the iPad as a “lean back experience (the lean back on the sofa device).” Yankovich described this as the “don’t make me work” and “entertain me!” mode.

(Image via Fifth Finger blog)

Has AR to date largely become a passive lean back entertain and dazzle me / bombard me with information experience?

I thought of this as I read Fast Company’s Co. Design article on Michaël Harboun’s AR thesis project, Transcendenz. Harboun, now a designer at IDEO, states in the article, “Regular AR applications add a layer of objective data, informing us about our surroundings. They give us an instant answer, so that we immediately know what we see.” In this immediacy, we’ve mainly become passive spectators with visuals and data ready to hand (FYI, an interesting tangent here on AR decreasing reliance on memory).

Harboun distinguishes Transcendenz as not giving answers, but asking questions. “It believes in the user’s ability to put the world around him into question, and to not content himself eating instant available data.” We can think of the participant in Transcendenz then as partaking in a lean forward media experience.

Transcendenz is driven by creating an empathetic experience for the user in AR (an arena I’ve been very interested in since I began working with AR seven years ago). My thoughts turn to Steve Mann’s work on Mediated Reality from the early 90’s. In an article in the Linux Journal, Mann states, “Mediated Reality sets forth a new computational framework in which the visual interpretation of reality is finely customized to the needs of each individual wearer of the apparatus”. As such, he furthers, “Just as you would not want to wear undergarments or another person’s mouth guard, you may not want to find yourself wearing another person’s computer”. Years ago as I read this I often thought, perhaps in the future you will want to filter your reality through someone else’s perspective, be it a friend in a social network, someone you admire or idolize, or perhaps even a complete stranger. Mediated Reality could be applied to build empathy, by enabling someone to see the world through another’s eyes.

In the Transcendenz video, we see the main character jaunted by how everyone now quite literally resembles him, taking on his physical appearance, within the Empathy prism. The narration is translated: “It’s amazing how a perfect stranger can suddenly seem so familiar. It’s as if one would project our own life on others and even the most annoying persons [sic] now make us smile.” Transcendenz is depicted as a tool to enable empathy not only towards other human beings, but to nature and our environment as well. Philosopher Immanuel Kant is referenced in the narration, “Empathy is not only about projecting ourselves on our fellows, but also on the world around us.” (I’ll spare you the stardust part.)

While in the Empathy prism, the user is actively engaged in his environment in a lean forward mode. The experience is initially accessed through the act of meditation as seen in the video at 1:18. The program indicates to the user, “You’re too excited to enter the interconsciousness. Try to meditate a bit.” There’s something curious happening in this act where a lean forward mode is entered via a lean back relaxation mode in meditation.

A couple of references here enter my thoughts. Firstly, non-traditional video games developed at USC’s Game Innovation Lab including Cloud, Journey, Flower, and Bill Viola’s The Night Journey. Game designer and lab director Tracey Fullerton describes these experimental games as positing, “the possibility of a game mechanic that expressed peacefulness, wonder and awe” as well as enlightenment (wonder being one of my favourite words in fact; here’s a link to my TEDx 2010 talk on AR & Wonderment). The core mechanic in Bill Viola’s PlayStation 3 game is described in his artist statement as “the act of traveling and reflecting rather than reaching certain destinations – the trip along a path of enlightenment.” I view this description as parallel to the mechanics and design intent of Transcendenz.

It is interesting to consider what kind of aesthetic and direction AR games may take on if such a mechanic is followed and applied as opposed to the current direction, which are predominately AR first-person shooter games.

The second reference I think of is Ian Bogost’s latest book, “How to Do Things with Video Games” and his chapter on “Relaxation”, particularly as he refers to lean back and lean forward media in relation to video games. Bogost distinguishes how leaning forward “requires continuous attention, thought and movement” and leaning back is associated with relaxation and passivity (he even mentions gluttony). He writes, “To relax through a game requires abandoning the value of leaning forward and focusing on how games can also allow players to achieve satisfaction by leaning back.” Transcendenz leans back in a state of relaxation and enlightenment, yet simultaneously asks the user to lean forward and not abandon that state, to actively engage with their environment and be present, immersed and interactive. The core mechanics of Transcendenz, comparable to Viola’s The Night Journey, are exploration, reflection and action through emotional experience to transform the user / player — and, after all, isn’t this what designing AR experiences should be about: engaging the viewer in meaningful, contextual, interactive learning experiences which are rooted in the real world.

Let’s continue the conversation: please post any comments below or reach me on Twitter.

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  1. Hi Helen,

    Thanks for asking me to share my thoughts on your article.

    I also think that in order to develop AR into a compelling and engaging new medium we should move more towards a “lean forward” model. However I also think that its not all black or white. The Transcendenz concept is showing us how a balanced state between the two makes it all the more interesting.

    I always like to think that AR, in it’s ultimate form, allows us to work without any creative boundaries so that we can take people on the journey of a lifetime. But what I currently sense is that AR is heading towards standard conceptual formats even faster then I hoped for. But then again… maybe standards need to be set first in order to be able to break away from them and move to higher grounds. I think the Transcendenz concept is very inspiring and I hope that the technically oriented companies that create the platforms and hardware that we work on take notice of that.

  2. Trak

    Hi Helen, great article and thanks for inviting my thoughts.

    I would agree- an AR environment that invites users to “lean forward” and participate will accelerate the technology as the interactive medium of choice.

    But for the most part, users (at least in the States) seem to expect a “lean-back” experience where they are entertained passively without needing to take an action. Just the other day, I heard a journalist say, “but it seems awkward to hold my smartphone above the print in order to see the augmentations.”

    You can see the problem. If the only thing that separates the success of mobile AR from its failure are users deterred by an experience as simple as hovering a device that gets lighter and thinner with every passing release, then we have to get more creative.

    The user experience is paramount- even if it requires something as mundane as holding a mobile device in the air or above an image, the experience must be engaging enough to make them indifferent to unfamiliar actions such as holding a phone or tablet in front of them.

    It is thus of the utmost importance that we galvanize the digital artists, creators and designers to create these kinds of experiences- interfaces that (much like the video) transcend the technology to become truly natural.

    Enchanted reality, right?

  3. A ‘lean forward’ (if not a ‘be in’) experience should definitely be our aim. After all this is what an immersive environment is. And in many ways is what will distinguish AR from a mere gimmick (as accused by some) and will… ‘transcend’ it to an experience complementary to our ‘real’ world.

    You can see some of my views on UX in AR here – http://goo.gl/KDZOI – as presented in the 2nd Standards for AR meeting and ‘blogified’ here – http://goo.gl/y9TXV

  4. I maintain that AR will not truly integrate into human behavior until lightweight hands-free HUD experiences are the norm. Ray Ban’s with AR.

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    Helen Papagiannis is the Chief Innovation Officer at Infinity Augmented Reality Inc. in New York City. Nearing the completion of her doctorate, Helen has been working with Augmented Reality (AR) for almost a decade with a focus on storytelling and creating compelling experiences in AR. Helen was named among the NEXT 100 Top Influencers of the Digital Media Industry in 2013, and is featured as an innovator in the book, "Augmented Reality: An Emerging Technologies Guide to AR", published in 2013. Prior to joining Infinity AR, she was a Senior Research Associate at York University's Augmented Reality Lab in the Department of Film, Faculty of Fine Art. Helen has presented her interactive work and PhD research at global conferences and invited events including TEDx (Technology, Entertainment, Design), ISMAR (International Society for Mixed and Augmented Reality) and ISEA (International Symposium for Electronic Art). Helen's TEDx 2011 talk was featured among the Top 10 Talks on Augmented Reality and Gamified Life. Prior to her augmented life, she was a member of the internationally renowned Bruce Mau Design studio where she was project lead on “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design”, an internationally touring exhibition and best-selling book examining the new inventions, technologies, and events changing the world.
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