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User Preferences: Tech Q&A With AR Visionary Sander Veenhof

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do.
August 17, 2011, 3:13pm

Guerilla art exhibition at MoMA, using augmented reality

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: Sander Veenhof.

The Creators Project: Who are you and what do you do?
Sander Veenhof: I’m Sander Veenhof (NL, 1973), former computer programmer, now full-time artist—though I’m mixing those two disciplines a lot these days, conceptualizing my own projects and realizing them too. Over the past year, I’ve foremostly been exploring the domain of dynamic multi-user augmented reality, by which I mean the non-static placement of content into the global virtual public space: a parallel reality with a radical lack of any kind of boundaries. I’ve been creating tools and mechanisms to open up this virtual space to anyone wanting to contribute, as with the Cityshapes project in Dortmund, Germany. And to highlight what extent this new hybrid reality stretches out, I co-organized an uninvited AR guerilla exhibition within the walls of the MoMA in New York. Taking that approach one step further, Mark Skwarek and I launched virtual Twitter-connected items inside the Pentagon and inside the Oval Office of Barack Obama (below), creating a public communication hotline straight to the president’s desk. If an iPhone were to be allowed inside the White House, that is.


What hardware do you use?
Most of the work I’m releasing now can be experienced using a smartphone or tablet, but before the virtualization of my artistic output, I did produce a number of physical interactive installations too. Making use of Phidgets control hardware, and often involving non-digital elements too. Either as subject, or as user, as in the multi-touchscreen for plants project for example.

What software do you use?
Seldomly, my works are stand-alone. Whatever form or physical or virtual shape they have, they generally rely on the internet and its global user-base to function. PHP-scripts are at the core of almost anything I develop. The Layar augmented reality content I’m creating is being generated by PHP-scripts, connecting to a database, which can easily be shared with (mobile) web-pages, also written in PHP. I have become a very quick and pragmatic PHP-programmer. In contrast to the negative stance towards having to program your own ideas, I think it is highly recommended to posses the power to just create virtually anything. I think kids should learn programming as early as possible!

Infiltrating the Oval Office & Pentagon

If money were no object, how would you change your current setup?
I would buy AR glasses to experiment with before they soon become a common gadget, and I strongly believe they will. They will make it much easier to absorb the hybrid reality we are currently living in. The acceptance and integration of hi-tech tools into our day-to-day life happens very quickly. The act of grabbing an iPhone in your pocket to empower almost any thinkable task or activity with some data from the cloud shows how the digital reality has already merged with our normal lives. It would be more comfortable to experience that de-facto part of the world in true surround 3D.

What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
I would like to see a “patent shredder” invented, which indiscriminately and aggressively shreds all, or perhaps a certain subset or genre, of patents. The patent system has turned into a million-headed monster. I get the creeps thinking how many patents I presumably offend, publishing my “components showing visual content to viewers”.

Is there any piece of technology that inspired you to take the path you did?
During the time I studied at the Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam, the Second Life world came into existence. I liked the efficiency and the new possibilities it provided me as an art student. I no longer had to worry about the size of the sculptures I was creating because I didn’t have to physically transport them to the academy anymore. Suddenly, I could make bigger than life size artworks! They required some imagination of course, but I did get annoyed by people claiming that the works I was creating were not real. A terminological confusion, involving the terms real, material, and physical. To demonstrate the realness of virtual worlds, I did a couple of projects in which I matched the virtual environment to our physical world based on certain ‘material’ aspects both domains had in common. Matching on distance and movement, I organized synchronized walking tours through Second Life and the city of The Hague and I had SL avatars have real weights in a massively complex Physical Virtuality installation. Then, when I first saw augmented reality on a mobile phone, I realized I no longer had to go this complex way to create hybrid reality installations. The virtual reality had entered our physical realm through the worldwide network of mobile devices.

What’s your favorite relic piece of technology from your childhood?
That’s undoubtedly my Commodore 64. Part of a small group, we programmed what was called demos: showcases of innovative, boundary crossing fancy visual effects. At the time there was a whole ecosystem of creativity surrounding the C64 with its fixed and very limiting capacities. Demos were swapped worldwide, by post, on floppy disk. To my surprise some creations of that time have survived their floppy disk existence, for example a demo named Party Crap. Seeing my 1990 explorations with 3D cube effects in a sky, it struck me that anno 2011, I’m still doing the same. But now in augmented reality, in the real sky.