How Augmented-Reality Content Might Actually Work

Caterina Fake describes how her startup, Findery, is helping the Internet get local.

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Augmented reality is very exciting. The promise of it is this: all the information on the Internet overlaid on the real world exactly where and when you need it. What's that mountain called? A pop up could tell you. What's the highest rated restaurant on the block? Boom, the reviews arrive on your Google Glass or screen. Want to know which neighborhoods of Oakland prevented non-white people from moving in? You could overlay the historical maps right onto the world in front of you.

But when you really start to think about it, the dream of augmented reality recedes. Who is going to make all this geotagged content? And how are people going to use it? What genres and forms are going to be natural to read out there in the world rather than (as we imagine readers) curled up on the couch?

Luckily, Caterina Fake has built a site that's testing the content question. Findery is a service that relies on user-generated annotations of the physical world. Her users are, in some ways, evolving towards finding good answers to some of the questions about augmented-reality content.

We spoke for a Q&A running in our beautifully redesigned magazine. This is an extended remix of that conversation.

You've been working at consumer-oriented Internet companies for more than a decade. How has the Internet changed in that time?

We've gone through this really expansive phase, and we are in a state of reunification and refocus on the local. I don't know how long you would say the expansive period lasted, maybe 10 years. It was a period of all-embracing, global vision. When we were making Flickr, we called it the "Eyes of the World." The idea was that everybody, everywhere, is looking. It was this sense of being able to penetrate worlds that you had never been able to access before--of global, universal travel. It was really big and really amazing and mind-blowing and mind-boggling, and it's the reason that I was into the Internet to begin with.

When I first got online, it was in the '80s, and I was on all these bulletin-board services. I was really into [Jorge Luis] Borges, and I found this whole group of Borges scholars in Denmark. Here I am, I'm a teenager, I'm living in suburban New Jersey, and I don't have anybody to talk to, but I meet all these people online, and I learn all about Borges. When you're remote like that, the Internet can give a sense of connection to people.

So we built a lot of tools to make it easier and easier for everybody to get online and do the same thing. I think we've reached capacity in that sense--in the sense of the globalization of the individual mind.

And now things are changing. Are we entering a new phase?

I think we are gaining a new appreciation for the here and now, for the place we live, for the people in our neighborhood, for groundedness. This may be something that comes from social-media exhaustion. You see the early indications of a return to the local.

The computers people have are no longer on their desks, but in their hands, and that is probably the transformative feature of the technology. These computers are with you, in the world. So your location is known. It used to be that you would search for a florist in Bellingham, Washington, and get the most popular florist in the world. But now the computer knows where you are; it even knows what block you're on.

How will this change what people actually read and watch and listen to? And how will Findery work?

Findery lets you tease out local knowledge, hidden secrets, stories and information about the world around you. People can annotate places in the real world, leave notes tagged to a specific geographic location--an address, a street corner, a stream, a park bench, the rock at the end of the road. Then, other people find those notes.

To give you some examples, I've lived for years in my house in San Francisco but had no idea, till Findery, that Anne Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire down the street, and that Courtney Love lived on the block when she was dating Kurt Cobain. The Safeway near my house turns out to almost have been a funeral home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and there's a famous artist working out of an abandoned building nearby. I've learned the names of plants I'd never noticed before. Someone has grafted branches from fruit trees onto the trees in the park near my office, and you can forage fruit from them. You shouldn't cross the street on the south side of Gough but on the north side, which will save you time, the way the traffic lights are timed.

People do lovely things on Findery, like leave drawings of a place in that place, and write poems about places and leave them there. People make little scavenger hunts and leave private notes for each other.

You are a longtime Internet person. Why do you care so much about sense of place?

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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