In this second case study in our series exploring extended reality (XR), we examine the Seeing the Invisible Augmented Reality (AR) Art Exhibit, as exhibited by the Royal Botanical Gardens. This AR art exhibition featuring the art of 13 artists from around the world was initiated by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens and displayed concurrently at 12 Botanical Gardens worldwide.
Type of Experience:
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Reflections On My Experience
Interview Between Tucson Botanical Gardens Executive Director Michelle Conklin & Seeing The Invisible Curators Hadas Maor & Tal Michael Haring
In 2021, as the world continued to face the pandemic and many art galleries were closed to the public, an idea was fostered out of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to host an outdoor art exhibit, but not in the usual sort of way. Rather an invisible art exhibit, at least to the naked eye, and one that was concurrently displayed in 12 gardens worldwide with the same pieces of original art. “How?”, you ask. With augment reality (AR), creating the first such multi-location, simultaneous art exhibition of its kind with a number of artists, many of whom were new to AR, creating their first pieces in augmented reality.
Some of the goals of this exhibition were to:
- give visitors something new to enjoy in gardens at times of year when plants may not be blooming
- complement the natural setting with the AR art, encouraging visitors to experience it in a new way
- give people a way to enjoy art in a shared, yet outdoor setting
- encourage visitors to the gardens to engage with the gardens and with the art
- collaborate with other gardens worldwide
- create an exhibition without disturbing the gardens themselves, and keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum
The art exhibition was also designed to address shared themes of “nature, environment, and sustainability, exploring the boundaries and connections between art, technology, and nature. Both bleak and hopeful, each artwork offering a unique perspective on unresolved issues, creating thought-provoking, experiential, and contemplative spaces for viewers to immerse in.”
The artwork and artists crafting this narrative included:
- Gilded Cage AR (2021) by Ai Weiwei
- Water Serpent (2021) by Jakob Kudsk Steensen
- Dawn Chorus (2021) by Sarah Meyohas
- Biome Gateway (2021) by Timur Si-Qin
- Stones Against Diamonds (Ice Cave) AR (2015 / 2021) by Isaac Julien
- Forget Me Not (2021) by Ori Gersht
- Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams AR (2021) by Refik Anadol
- AG + BA [AR] (2014 / 2021) by El Anatsui
- Anamazon [Limb] (2021) by Pamela Rosenkranz
- Morphecore Prototype AR (2021) by Daito Manabe
- Directions Zero (2010 / 2021) by Mohammed Kazem
- Pneuma (2021) by Mel O’Callaghan
- Salt Stalagmite #1 [Three Bridges] (2021) by Sigalit Landau
- Nea Zoi (2022) by Loukia Alavanou
Despite the art exhibition taking place concurrently in a number of different gardens, the experience is different in each garden, as the works are augmenting the unique surroundings and context of each garden.
Why Augmented Reality?
Building and purchasing sculptures and other art installations is a pretty major undertaking for a botanical gardens, and a travelling exhibition can generally only visit one garden at a time. While not without a cost, by making this art exhibition simultaneously available in a number of botanical gardens, this makes the cost of such an art exhibition less prohibitive. The fact that this art exhibition is accessible through augmented reality via digital devices, makes it possible to ‘install the pieces’ temporarily in multiple gardens at the same time.
The initial launch of this AR art exhibition during the pandemic was well timed to offer an alternative outdoor way to enjoy art, outside the enclosed space of an art gallery, and further encouraged visitors to think about botanical gardens as arts spaces, as well as nature spaces.
The curators of Seeing the Invisible talk about the importance of this AR art exhibition being phygital, a blending of a digital experience with a physical one. Thought was put into where each artwork was placed in each garden to enhance both the artwork and the garden, as well as take visitor safety and the protection of the planted exhibitions into consideration. The AR artwork, through the Seeing the Invisible app, was geotagged to specific locations in the gardens they were exhibited in, and visitors could only experience the artwork in that location, and only in those gardens. Thanks to the phygital, the experience was unique in each garden.
The Augmented Reality Experience
The Seeing the Invisible artwork is experienced at the gardens hosting this AR art exhibition through visitors’ smartphones and tablets via a GPS triggered app.
To see and experience these dynamic and engaging pieces of artwork, people visiting the gardens hosting this AR art exhibition need to:
- Before visiting a Gardens hosting the AR art exhibition:
- Download the Seeing the Invisible App to the smartphone or tablet with cellular capabilities that they will be using at the AR art exhibition.
- Allow the app access to device’s camera and microphone.
- Fully charge the device before visiting the gardens.
- Take earbuds or headphones compatible with the device to the gardens with you.
- At a Gardens hosting the AR art exhibition:
- If you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, you can borrow one on site.
- Follow the map in the app to the different pieces of AR art within the gardens.
- Follow the Seeing the Invisible App’s instructions at each piece of AR art, scanning the ground where the piece of art has been virtually installed until the art virtually appears.
The Royal Botanical Gardens shares further tips on enjoying Seeing the Invisible Art Exhibition in their gardens, here.
Once the art virtually appears before you, visitors are encouraged to engage with it and fully immerse themselves in it, by listening through their headphones to the experience, and walking around the artwork and even into it. Visitors can also take pictures with the virtual art and read more about the art through the app.
Each piece of art, lends to different forms of engagement. For instance with:
- Gilded Cage: You can walk into the labyrinth of cells.
- Dawn Chorus: Birds swoop around you as you are drawn in by the music from the piano.
- Biome Gateway: You can walk into the temple cave, and discover a portal to walk through and into a parallel landscape.
- Forget Me Not: By moving toward the flower arrangement, you trigger a gun to propel a bullet through the flower arrangement causing it to explode outwards. Once the explosion has occurred, if you walk around the vase, you will hear three different scholars discussing the flower arrangement.
- Pneuma: By walking into the sphere, you see the gardens around you through the distortion of being inside a bubble, while the sound of breathing acts to change your own breathing pattern while experiencing.
Morphecore Prototype AR even inspired a dancer to choreograph their own piece to dance along with. Other host Gardens similarly witnessed many of their visitors dancing along with the Morphecore Prototype.
My Reflections on this Augmented Reality Experience
One of my goals in exploring different extended reality experiences is to discover what excites me in these experiences and what I find challenging, in order to reflect on what could create even richer and more accessible extended reality experiences.
Here are my thoughts on the Seeing the Invisible AR Art Exhibition, from when I visited it in September of 2022 at the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The Extended Reality Magic
This is a clever idea to get visitors exploring the gardens through a new lens, allowing the augmented reality art to spark their imagination in a new way, to perceive the gardens differently, and to provoke thought pertaining to nature, technology and art.
Some art, like Dawn Chorus, brought pure joy of the fantastically, magical whimsy that augmented reality brings with it, further adding beauty to the surrounding gardens.
Other art, like Pneuma, made you feel as though you’d stepped out of reality and were peering back in at it.
While other art, like Gilded Cage, got you questioning our problematically omnipotent and controlling relationship with nature from the perspective on an artist who was imprisoned.
Best of all, the gardens discovered that people of all ages wanted to engage with the art, even dancing along to Daito Manabe’s Morphecore Prototype AR.
Logistically the GPS triggered app is a good idea to create a curated experience within each garden, and to host this simultaneously between different gardens.
Adding in the ability for visitors to be able to photograph the AR art through the app, added in the ability for visitors to have fun engaging with the art. This also added to crowdsourced storytelling around the exhibit, which I can only imagine was beneficial to marketing the exhibition.
I’d love to experience future such AR art exhibitions at the Royal Botanical Garden, as well as to experience the Seeing the Invisible Art Exhibition in different gardens to see how the experience differs between the gardens with the same art.
Current Challenges (as of 2022 Experience)
Excited to experience the Seeing the Invisible Art Exhibition at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, my niece and I followed the instructions and downloaded the Seeing the Invisible App to our smartphones before heading to Hendrie Park to enjoy the exhibit together.
The only problem, when we got there, the Seeing the Invisible App didn’t work on either of our smartphones, despite both having compatible technology. Not sure if this is the reason why, but one woman told us the issue was due to the strength of the wifi signal from your data provider.
No problem, we queued to borrow one of tablets that the gardens had available for visitors that needed it.
While the borrowed tablet worked, this now meant that we were now sharing a device, our headphones didn’t work in the borrowed device, and the borrowed tablet had a screen protector over it, that made the AR more difficult to see, especially in sunny areas. Added to this, almost every piece of AR art was placed in a sunny area, and it was hot, so not only were we battling with the light to see the AR art through the screen, but needed shade for respite for the sun.
I assumed that this user experience oversight was down to this being the Royal Botanical Garden’s first AR Exhibition and them not being familiar enough with the technology to understand how to create a positive user experience, but it turns out it was actually the curators that mapped out where each piece would be placed. Maybe the oversight of the sun was made, as due to the pandemic, the curators did not visit Hendrie Park before deciding where to place the AR art, but either which way, this emphasizes the importance of taking the user experience into consideration when designing AR exhibitions. Shade is important, both for the visitors’ physical comfort and for the practicality of visitors actually being able to properly see and experience the AR art work through their screens. With the size of the Royal Botanical Gardens there is more than enough options to place these 13 pieces of artwork in a way that keeps visitors out of the full sun and allows them to better see and experience the AR art on their screens.
While certainly the audio experience would have been much better had we been able to use our headphones, as people do experience exhibits like this on a shared device, I think it would be beneficial for the audio portion of the experience to be added at a higher volume to better allow for visitors sharing a device to be able to hear the experience.
I appreciated that the artist shared a write up on their art within the app, but to spend time reading this, it takes you away from viewing and experiencing the AR art. It would be great, if visitors have the additional option to play an audio recording of the artist sharing their thoughts with visitors on the piece of art.
Finally, with the loaned tablets, it would be beneficial if the individual gardens made it possible for visitors to email themselves the copies of any photos they shot with the AR art.
Takeaways From This Extended Reality Experience
When easily visible and heard, the Seeing the Invisible Art Exhibition creates a glimpse into a hidden world that encourages thought and exploration through a new lens and perspective. Thats exciting, and demonstrated what excites me about sharing stories with augmented reality.
However, if the app isn’t working on people’s devices or the AR is difficult to see on people’s screens, then people become frustrated, rather than excited by the experience. This is why user design and testing is so very important. This should be thought of both in terms of the technology and visitors’ interactions with the physical environment in which they are experiencing the AR art. In the case of the RBG, the gardens and not trampling plants seems to have been taken into considerations, but not visitors’ physical comfort from the sun or thought of how that sun would impact user’s experience. This art exhibition was almost in its entirety in direct sun with no to very little shade.
User testing should be inclusive of the loaner tablets for visitor use, made available onsite. This means, if adding protective screen covers to the tablets, making sure those protective screen covers do not hinder visitors’ ability to enjoy the AR art.
It would also be advantageous to allow people using the borrowed tablets to be able to email themselves any pictures they took with the AR art, or if that is not possible, to be upfront with visitors about that from the start, so as not to leave them disappointed at the end of the experience.
Summary of Takeaways:
- The technology exists to create a GPS triggered augmented reality app that works on people’s devices without overloading a device’s data.
- The Seeing the Invisible AR App takes up 2.1 GB of space on my smartphone.
- The Seeing the Invisible AR App was developed by Khora ApS, a virtual reality and augmented reality production studio in Copenhagen.
- When the AR app is working, the augmented reality art exhibition creates wonder for visitors, gets visitors exploring and interacting in a new way, and has visitors engaging with the AR art.
- By making the AR art exhibition viewable through smartphones and tablets (with loaner tablets available for use), it is accessible to all ages and most abilities.
- User testing is important on the site of the experience, thinking about user comfort at different times of year.
- Avoid creating GPS triggered AR screen experiences in direct sun.
- Make sure protective screen covers on loaner tablet do not limit the ability to see the augmented reality.
- Think about user safety and comfort when placing GPS triggered AR experiences.
- Encourage visitors to bring headphones, while ensuring sound is available at a volume that those without headphones or sharing a device can hear.
- People enjoy interacting with AR art.
- Make sure people can email themselves any pictures they took with the AR art on loaned tablets.
In reflecting upon the Seeing the Invisible AR Art Exhibition, in addition to placing the augmented reality art in spaces that people can enjoy the art in the shade and to be better able to hear the accompanying sounds when experiencing through a shared device, I’d also love to further encourage the engagement that people enjoyed with the art. Some possible ideas for that:
- I’ve recently seen how the Relive App makes it easy to create videos from a walk by recording the map and editing in the photos and videos you take at different stops. Should this be possible within this AR app, it could create fun keepsakes from the AR experience, that also become valuable crowdsourced storytelling for the exhibit. An example from the travels of a fellow member of Vancouver’s tech community:
- It would be great to be able to play the artist’s description of their work as an audio reading, complete with some prompts to encourage people to engage with their art in different ways.
- I loved how Ori Gersht’s Forget Me Not was responsive to visitor’s movements, it would be exciting to have more pieces that respond to the location of the holder of a device.
The educator in me has also begun to design, in my head, a scavenger hunt that encourages visitors to collect experiences and different perspectives with each piece of art by encouraging visitors to take on some sort of challenge or unravel some sort of mystery with each piece of art. Being able to create a mapped storytelling account of such a scavenger hunt, in a format like the Relive App creates, would be a great way to further share the discoveries from such a scavenger hunt.
The storyteller in me would also love to learn more about the making of the art, like with this talk on Ori Gersht’s and Timur Si-Qin’s AR art pieces.
What’s Your Take on this Augmented Reality Experience?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments below on what you think would make this a richer and more accessible AR experience, and if you have technical solutions for making this a more immersive and user friendly experience.
Conklin, M., [Tucson Botanical Gardens], Maor, H., & Haring, T. (2022, December 1). A Talk with the Curators of Seeing The Invisible [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BXqc0g8D_c
Horwitz, L. (2023, June 12). phygital. Customer Experience. https://www.techtarget.com/searchcustomerexperience/definition/phygital
Jerusalem Botanical Garden. (2021, November 14). אחת העבודות בתערוכת האמנות, תפתיע אתכם במיוחד. . .. Jerusalem Botanical Garden’s Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/Jerusalem.Botanical.Gardens/videos/372403381331281
Rendell, H., Gertler, C., Katri, M., Maor, H., & Haring, T. (2021). SEEING THE INVISIBLE. SEEING THE INVISIBLE. https://seeingtheinvisible.art/
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Maor, H., Gersht, O., & Si-Qin, T. (2022, May 24). Seeing the Invisible In Conversation with the Artists [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_XD4nmV-58
Royal Botanical Gardens. (2023, March 8). Seeing the Invisible – Royal Botanical Gardens. https://www.rbg.ca/things-to-do/art-in-the-gardens/seeing-the-invisible
Shamir, R., [America-Israel Friendship League], Gertler, C., Rendell, H., Maor, H., Haring, T., Rominiecki, J., & Firestone, W. (2021, November 8). Seeing the Invisible: Augmented Reality art [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIuxE1oZKtY