Augmented reality’s future lies in the 1930s avant-garde

“I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen

Augmented reality’s future lies in the 1930s avant-garde

There are few physical objects as tied up with time as the book. Weigh it in your hand and you’ll measure it in days and weeks, not pounds and ounces. To get from beginning to end takes time. To read War and Peace takes time. But what if those 587,287 words could be scooped out of the page and fed into your eyeballs all at once? That, at least, is something early-20th-century avant-garde writer Bob Brown might have wanted when he came up with the idea of the Reading Machine.

“To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine,” Brown wrote in his 1930s manifesto, The Readies. “A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to.”

Brown’s machine was never properly built, but a prototype was made that looked much like an early microfilm reader – technology that was being developed at the time – attached to a typewriter case. The basic idea was that micrographic texts, called “readies” compared to “talkies” in cinema, could be projected and scrolled across a viewing screen, but Eric White, senior lecturer in American Literature at Oxford Brookes University, tells me that this only hints at the ambition Brown had for his machine.

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“The ‘readies’ manifestos imagine reading as an immersive, networked multimedia experience that not only predicted hypertext and ‘browsing’ in an early form, but also aspects of augmented reality,” says White. “For example, he thought about the way neon advertising hoardings were transforming the relationship between space and texts, and the ways in which various gesture controls and interfaces could also shape that relationship.

“At one point he talks about printing in ‘radioactive ink for reading at night’, at another, contactless controls for the machine’s various functions. In his later writing, he actually imagines manipulating electronic texts with his bare hands.”


(Above: A section from Brown’s The Readies, Roving Eye Press)

Brown had a hand in pretty much every form of writing imaginable during the opening decades of the 20th century. He worked in advertising, journalism, pulp fiction, poetry, screenwriting and ethnography. He both edited an avant-garde socialist magazine and founded an international business news publisher in Brazil. He wrote a number of best-selling cookbooks, including The Complete Book of Cheese. But in 1930, Brown wanted to prototype a device that would anticipate a time when words could be “recorded directly on the palpitating ether”.

This was at a time when new technologies, such as micrography, broadcasting and film editing, were very much at a crossroads, and were challenging established ideas around reading and publishing. The extraordinary thing about Brown, White tells me, is “he actually did something about it”. He reached out to modernist writers including Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound to help put together an anthology of texts, as a way to advertise his reading machine to potential backers. The result was Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine, which were read much like tickertape (a simulation of these is available here).

While the use of existing technology was inventive, what fascinates White about Brown’s work is the suggestion of integrating technology that didn’t exist during the early 20th century. White reached out to digital artist John Twycross, who founded Oxford Brookes’ Avant-Gardes and Speculative Technology (AGAST) project alongside White, and the pair discussed how those features could be reimagined, and made to work with modern technology – particularly augmented reality (AR).

Spraying graffiti with Iain Sinclair

White and Twycross used an AR platform called Vuforia to create a prototype app – also called The Reading Machine – which takes picture-postcard views of Oxford and London and overlays them with slogan-like texts created by the writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair. These are viewed either using a Google Cardboard or on the screen of a tablet.   

“These 3D texts erupt from the various landscapes to comment on the appropriation of ‘public’ space by various agencies, municipal, corporate, educational and the like,” White explains. “Iain’s new texts build on this engagement… they use humour – sometimes fairly darkly – to diagnose and comment on the ways in which these agencies manipulate language, promising ‘access’ to various spaces while denying and regulating it, and always in their favour.”reading_machine_2

(Above: AGAST’s Reading Machine)

The revamped reading machine might not beam hundred-thousand-word novels into your eyeballs, but White tells me it takes up Brown’s interest in reading technology as a “revolutionary political instrument, which could transform the relationship between texts and readers, and the spaces they both inhabit”.

“The future’s future is in the past”

“‘Cycle lanes for body part donors’ flashing out of various street signs is one of my favourites, but there are many more,” adds White. “I was struck by his very Brownian slogan ‘the future’s future is in the past’ as well.

“In our brainstorming sessions Iain’s wife enthusiastically described this – and I’m paraphrasing here – as the most ‘out there’ project Iain has done yet. I considered that a huge compliment… Iain has an extraordinary respect for the printed word and its relationship with landscape. I think perhaps we tempted him to see whether, and how far, he could extend that relationship.”

White and his team aren’t the first to see the subversive potential of AR. Japan-based artists and “nature/tech cult” AUJIK, for example, has investigated the idea of virtual graffiti, and how it enables artists to rebuild and “hack” the appearance of buildings. For AGAST, AR stands to be a tool for creative practice and critical commentary, but it’s at risk of being co-opted by private companies as a means to layer ownership over public spaces.minecraft_banksy_2

(Above: A shot from AUJIK’s Karakuri cores)

“We’re currently sleepwalking into a new AR media ecology in a way that would have infuriated Brown,” he says. “Brown himself became so disenchanted with commercial development processes that he transferred his energy into developing the Reading Machine as a tool for political revolution, so that it could provide workers with cheap, portable access to whole libraries of information on the go.

“Taking our cue from Brown, we’re trying to make a start at using AR to reconnect with or reimagine our environment… and to make it more accessible.”

Future reading

Like Brown’s original manifesto and prototype, AGAST and Sinclair’s project comes at a time when new technologies are at a crossroads. While the death of the physical book has been greatly exaggerated, the rise of smartphones, podcasts and video games have all opened possibility for new ways of thinking about literature – outside of the traditional codex. The Ambient Literature project, which I’ve previously written about, is investigating these ideas, as have a number of Twitter and Instagram-based projects. Books may be solid things, but text is slippery, made all the more slick by nomadic lives across clouds and smartphones.reading_machine_1

(Above: The launch of AGAST’s Reading Machine)

Like Ambient Literature, AGAST’s reading machine offers up an example of how artists and writers can engage with the new toolsets of literary production. They foreground reading not only as something tied up with time, but also with space – a concept that has been greatly altered by the onset of social media and geolocation tagging, and could be further altered by the rise of augmented reality.

“Why should the military, video games, and industrial sectors dominate the development of applications and standards in AR?”

“Why should the military, video games, and industrial sectors dominate the development of applications and standards in AR?” asks White. “Where are the creative artists, and where are the humanities scholars in this urgent debate? We need creative practitioners and humanities scholars engaged in this field now, and AGAST was formed in part to address this need. We must shape the relationship between text, data and the environment urgently, because those sectors I mentioned are already doing it for us. Are we happy with that?”

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