How Augmented-Reality Content Might Actually Work

My background is in art. I was a painter and an occasional sculptor, and I really like materials--you know, stuff. Physical objects. The world and the trees and the sunshine and the flowers. And all of that doesn't seem to really exist out in the ether of the Internet. Bringing people back into that actual, feel-able world is very important. My life project is humanizing technology: making technology more real and bringing it back into human interactions.

Where are you right now?

I'm sitting in a house that was built in the 1920s, in Finland. I have a book here that has the names of all of the people who have ever lived in this house--this wonderful old book. And you know this book should be out there: you should know this as you're coming down the street. You should be able to see that these were all railroad workers' houses once upon a time, and these are the families that lived there, and there were seven children living in two rooms.

What do you want Findery to feel like? How are we going to see this kind of content layered onto the planet?

It will be like a magic book, like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when it is fully built out. It's this sort of magical little board that you flip open and everything around you is revealed.

An adventure machine.

An adventure machine! Information and queries start coming up around you.

Do you think we might see these things pop up on a hands-free, head-mounted augmented-reality display, like Google's Project Glass?

I actually find that heads-up displays in cars and on Google Glass remove you from the presence of the people around you. But in the end, I'm not really a hardware person. I'm ecumenical about delivery systems--I'm more focused on the what than the how.

Could more knowledge lead people to shun dangerous or crime-ridden areas?

There was a lot of crime information on Findery for Hunters Point, a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. As a team, we felt an urge to make the place come alive, to say, "This is the community, this is the history of the place, here's the important stuff that's going on now." That can't happen unless you give people a place to talk. If a newspaper reports on Hunters Point, the "if it bleeds it leads" attitude dominates. The news doesn't tell you the story of a place as the locals know it.

Are there any other downsides to consuming all this local knowledge?

If you have a beginner's mind when you arrive in a new place, it can be very wonderful. I went to Rome for the first time in 2006, and I honestly didn't know how wonderful it would be. I thought, Oh, it's a city of ruins. Not much more than that. When I got there, my mind was blown. I had never seen a place so dense with amazing things. So there's something to showing up somewhere without any local knowledge.

I'm fascinated by the production side of this. So often, when content producers think about someone reading something, they imagine her curled up on a couch or sitting in a posture of repose. One thing that's fascinating about local content is that people are going to be reading it while they are out in the world. So how do the things that we make for them have to change?

You mean is the content immersive?

How do you decide what to write about? Let's say you're walking down a street and you see an interesting gargoyle on a building, and you think, "God that's the most interesting thing on this block" we should write about that gargoyle. When we start to think about publishing an entire city, how do we prioritize the stories?

So the last startup that I did was Hunch. Hunch uses a lot of heavy math and machine learning to reveal to you things that it thinks you are interested in. It uses all kinds of algorithms to figure out, "Oh this is a gargoyle guy and not a golf guy." Right? This is a person who is interested in history and not a person who's interested in celebrity gossip. So there's a lot of kind of heavy brute force computation going into figuring out those things. Putting that stuff together, hopefully you end up in a world where you are finding things that are interesting to you--but there's also a great deal of chance built into the algorithms, so you don't live in a filter bubble.

It seems like every distribution medium ends up coalescing around certain forms, specific ways of writing. Newspapers have the 600-word story. Magazines gave us longer profiles. What will be Findery's defining form?

The form Findery is zeroing in on is shorter than a blog post, longer than a tweet. It's pithy--a paragraph, maybe two. Because you're mobile, you're not going to read a novel; you want the précis, the distillation, the thing that you need to know. And then, if you want to dig deeper, you dig deeper.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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