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Find Your Lost Things In Augmented Reality—Using Brainwaves

'EEG AR: Things We Have Lost' is giving a virtual home to dispossessed objects.
April 13, 2015, 4:00pm
An augmented reality viewing on LACMA's North Piazza, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

EEG AR: Things We Have Lost is an augmented-reality public-art project by John Craig Freeman, Professor of New Media Art at Emerson College in Boston. Since January 2015, Freeman and his team of students have been creating a citywide virtual art project by selecting people at random on the streets of Los Angeles and asking them, “What have you lost?” Their locations were recorded, and a series of virtual lost objects were created from the given responses and programmed to appear at the exact GPS coordinates of the interviews. Using an augmented reality app which enables users to see the items through their mobile devices, people can now go to hundreds of sites in L.A. and experience the lost items in a totally new way.


"EEG AR: Things We Have Lost seeks to raise the question, 'What has Los Angeles lost?’” says Freeman. "It does so through augmented reality technologies that record and make available personal narratives and investigations into the history of the city." Answers to the question ranged from abstract concepts like privacy to more visual, physical items such as a mural by social-realist Mexican painter David Siqueiros (1896-1974), currently buried under decades of paint and plaster at the former Chouinard Art Institute. Freeman and his team recorded the location of the encounter and created avataric representations of the individuals themselves using a technology called photogrammetry, which, Freeman explains, "involves photographing the subject from multiple angles and extracting the geometry from the parallax difference between the images, producing a 3D model."

Video of Liverpool's Things We Have Lost

To develop EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, Freeman was awarded a commission from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology program. In addition to points all across the city, Freeman created a series of public viewings of work in progress at LACMA’s Plaza and with the help of technical advisors DAQRI and Melon, staging public performances of EEG AR Clinics at LACMA's Art + Technology Lab, where the public could randomly conjure and select lost items with their brainwaves using electroencephalography (EEG). The lab was reconfigured to resemble a clinic, complete with a reception desk and a waiting area. Lighting and sound were adjusted to encourage concentration, and participants were each brought behind medical privacy screens to an examination area, with brainwave data displayed on a screen facing them. Equipped with a brainwave sensor, they were each asked to focus on something they had lost.

A participant conjures lost things at the EEG AR Clinic, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

"As the attention values increased, a spawning effect appeared in the lab space, viewable on a specially designed augmented reality viewing device. If and when a predetermined attention value was achieved, the software would issue a call to instantiate a virtual object, selected randomly from the database of lost things," Freeman describes, adding that the element of chance is something that particularly appeals to him as an artist. "The virtual object would then appear, evoking the idea of conjuring lost things into existence just by thinking of them. The augmented objects appeared either floating in space or firmly sitting on the ground, depending on what kind of virtual object appeared, approximately [10'] from the subject wearing the sensor."

An augmented reality viewing on LACMA's North Piazza, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

Freeman was born in Los Angeles and as an art student, he studied painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography at UC San Diego. He soon found himself developing a mistrust of art-world institutions, so he turned his attention to anti-commodity practices and alternative forms of public art. Ever since he discovered the potential of creating art with desktop computers in 1989, Freeman has focused on using new technological developments to create public art as a form of intervention in both culture and politics. "Augmented reality is just the latest chapter in the larger arch of my career and creative practice," he explains.

A photogrammetry avatar at Hollywood and Vine, Los Angeles, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

In 2012, Freeman produced the first iteration of EEG AR: Things We Have Lost at Liverpool's FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He also created versions of the project in Coimbra, Portugal for Mapping Culture: Communities, Sites and Stories, and in Basel for the Virtuale Switzerland. The answers to the simple question "What have you lost?" varied by location. In Coimbra, for example, many people said they lost their pensions, while in Basel, people said they lost time. It seems the answers also vary by age group, with younger people listing off material items like money, and older folks naming less tangible things such as youth and family.

A photogrammetry avatar at the former location of El Aliso, an ancient sycamore tree that existed in downtown Los Angeles for four centuries, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

The artist's work with augmented reality began in the fall of 2010 with an AR intervention at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Mark Skwarek and a group of artists who would later become Manifest.AR. By then, Freeman had already begun working on a project called Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos, an augmented reality memorial and public art project dedicated to thousands of migrant workers who perished along the U.S./Mexico border.

A photogrammetry avatar at Pershing Square, Los Angeles, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

Freeman’s work evolved from his interest in public squares, and how the artworks within tend to function as memorials. His particular notion about the square as a place to shape political discourse and collective identity led him to question what would become of the public square in a culture of networked mobility: "Whereas the public square was once the quintessential place to air grievances, display solidarity, express difference, celebrate similarity, remember, mourn, and reinforce shared values of right and wrong, it is no longer the only anchor for interactions in the public realm," he explains. "That geography has been relocated to a novel terrain, one that encourages exploration of mobile location-based space, both physical and virtual."

A photogrammetry avatar at MacArthur Park Station, Los Angeles, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

Through augmented reality, Freeman believes that public space has become more open, and artworks are able to be placed anywhere in the world without the red tape that comes with institutionally-sanctioned projects. The implications are great: not only are we likely to see more art through the camera lenses of our smartphones and wifi-enabled tablets, but unwanted virtual objects like advertisements as well.

A photogrammetry avatar with fruit cart and lost mural, LACMA's North Piazza, EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, © John Craig Freeman, 2015

"In the early 1990s, we witnessed the migration of the public sphere from the physical realm, the town square and its print augmentation, to the virtual realm, the placelessness, the everywhere-but-nowhere of the Internet," Freeman says. "In effect, the global digital network has facilitated the emergence a new virtual space, which corresponds to the physical geography around us. The public sphere is now crashing back down to place in the form of place-based virtual and augmented reality, without losing its distributed character or its connections to the vast resources of the world-wide digital network."

Visit EEG AR: Things We Have Lost on Facebook to learn more and to answer the question "What have you lost?"



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