Concepts such as virtual worlds and augmented reality (AR) have long been part of the realm of science fiction, but while the former still lies beyond the reach of most, AR at least has reached the mass market through smartphones.

Past forward: Viewing the Khoj layer on a smartphone.

For example, with Google Goggles, Google uses a smartphone’s camera to do a visual search. You can point at an artwork, have it identified, and even pull up Wikipedia information. You can point to text in a foreign language, and get a translation.

Many brands have also invested in building augmented reality experiences to reach out to the audience. Tissot has a a website where you print a paper watch and put that on, then hold it in front of your webcam. It overlays an image of different watches, so you can ‘try’ out various looks while sitting at your computer.

The Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi, which has its office in Khirki Village in south Delhi, is using AR technology to create a living showcase of its art projects. The group was established in 1997, and according to project coordinator Charu Maithani, they have been carrying out experiments and art workshops at the street level in Khirki Village.

“Over the years, Khoj has had various contemporary art residencies, experiments and workshops all around Khirki Village. They’ve ranged from paintings and installations to live performances. Each of these initiatives has been carefully documented, with images, project reports and some videos," says Maithani.

However, after a project ends, so do the street-level installations. Maithani says, “While these records remain intact, the artwork, over time, has been replaced, removed or remade when a particular project was finished."

To connect these documented images with the spaces they had once occupied, to show people how things would have looked before they were removed years earlier, and to create a window to the past, which could be instantly compared to the present, Khoj created an AR project called 1SAM, or 1 Square Augmented Mile, in August.

The idea came from Delhi-based media-tech consultancy BlueAnt Digital Intelligence. “They came to us and suggested this as a way of showcasing our work differently. We immediately felt that this had a resonance with the work we are doing, and funded the project, giving them access to our content, and they put together the back-end of the project," says Maithani.

Arun Kumar, research and development lead at BlueAnt, says: “We came up with the concept some time ago, of using Layar (a free app) to enhance art. We did not have the content for it though, and when we heard about the work that Khoj does, we realized it was a perfect fit for what we had in mind."

Implementing the project to work properly on different devices was not without challenges. To experience 1SAM, you need to run Layar, which works with both iPhones and Android phones. When you walk around Khirki Village, the phone figures out your location, and displays pictures of installations at their old locations. There’s a map in the app as well to give you a guided tour of the different installations. Kumar says: “We used Layar and set up the different pictures of the installations, gave all the text information, and managed the overlays to look good. Then we tested it again, and nothing worked properly." The overlays would work properly on some phones and not at all on others.

To get around this, BlueAnt had to work closely with Layar’s developers, and redo a lot of the work, changing settings repeatedly to make locations and images sync properly. The whole process took over a month of testing and tweaking. After creating multiple versions for different handsets, BlueAnt finally ended up with a layer that displayed properly across devices in December, so Khoj could showcase it to the public in December.

The Layar layer that Khoj has put isn’t limited to installations either. The group is now working on using a new technology, Panoramio, which allows anyone to create AR tags which can be uploaded to the 1SAM servers. “We have over 3,000 images from 35 projects. These range from structures of the area to personal moments. Through crowd sourcing, we hope to increase that significantly, and to keep updating frequently, so that each walk with a smartphone will reveal new and unexpected vistas," Maithani says.

The 1SAM project is currently unavailable to the public while the group upgrades its servers, but they say it will be live again in a couple of weeks—and, says Maithani, will be extended to different locations in the country.

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Correction & Clarification: In this story BlueAnt Digital Intelligence has clarified that Arun Kumar has not worked with it since September. BlueAnt says it did not at any point work with the developers of Layar, an augmented reality platform, but used Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that Layar has created and offers to developers. The company says the showcase mentioned was in effect a workshop and was held in August. It adds that 1SAM’s servers cannot be used by the program Panoramio.

gopal.s@livemint.com

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