by: Buck Kahler

Cover photo by: Kenn Brown

In the ‘90s we were promised Virtual Reality – a completely immersive sensory experience that would take place in “cyberspace.” Fast forward twenty years and the nausea-inducing Oculus Rift gaming system may be the closest thing we currently have to Virtual Reality. But what if you could remain in the real world and eat your virtual reality cake too?

Enter Augmented Reality, a technology that promises to enhance your everyday surroundings to include digital data and imagery.

 Consumer devices like the upcoming Google Glass aim to add another layer of visual input over our real world. In March, Apple threw its hat in the augmented reality ring and many apps for mobile devices already exist to take advantage of the technology’s potential. Advertisers, businesses, and of course, the porn industry, are salivating at the chance to hock their wares in this new augmented world. But some consumers are already pre-wary of these devices, worried about privacy issues and fearing they may become the inadvertent star of someone else’s reality show. In West Virginia, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to ban the use of Google Glass while driving. (There’s a Google Glass app for your Tesla Model S, however.) As with all new technologies, its use or misuse often depends on the intentions of the person using it.

Art by Kenn Brown.

Art by Kenn Brown.

In William Gibson’s 2007 book Spook Country, the author who coined the term cyberspace back in the 1980s, describes a unique application for augmented reality: art. In the story, digital artists created images like giant animated dragons, that would exist in specific locations but would only be visible to people wearing augmented reality goggles. Last month, I discovered an app for smartphones and tablets that brings Gibson’s vision closer to reality.

William Gibson tries on a pair of Google Glasses. Photo by Joe Kendall.

William Gibson tries on a pair of Google Glasses. Photo by Joe Kendall.

The app is also the name of the company: Aurasma. The images created by the app are called auras. These auras can consist of photos, ads, 3D digital images, or even videos and games. Auras are triggered by specific imagery; flat images without reflective glass on them work best. These auras live on Aurasma’s servers, much like the videos on YouTube. Strangely enough, the company’s website doesn’t really demonstrate the sheer coolness of this application. For a better demonstration of what Aurasma actually does, check out head of sales, Mike Mills’ TED talk.

Aurasma logo


The demonstration image on Aurasma’s site brings Scottish poet, Robert Burns, to life. The effect is eerily reminiscent of the moving paintings in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. If you back the camera away from the image, the video “sticks” to the image to which it is attached, replacing what you see with your naked eye. My head was spinning with the possibilities for creativity, so I decided to try it for myself.

 The app walks you through the process of making your own auras. I began by selecting an image from my iPhone’s photo library. In true Internet fashion, it was a photo of our kitten Ninja. I then used the app to take a photo of my college diploma, carefully keeping the image within the frame. When I was done, I could view the aura of Ninja from across the room, at different angles, as if his picture had replaced the diploma in its frame. The app gives you the option of making your aura public, or keeping it private. After this experiment, I was absolutely hooked! I had to try something bigger, more ambitious. But this time, I would make it public.


1. Select your Aura image2. Pick your trigger image2. Pick your trigger image


3. Trigger image replaced

3. Trigger image replaced

As part of the premiere of a documentary I created for Fort Loudoun’s visitor center, I attached auras to several of the paintings in the museum. Using a smartphone, visitors can check out short videos I created that are triggered by the paintings created by Ken Smith. If you’d like to see an example of how this works, follow these steps.

  1. Download Aurasma to your mobile device (it’s a free app.)

  2. In your device’s web browser, enter this link to subscribe to my Aurasma channel:

  3. Once you have everything loaded, point your phone at this image.

    "Mud and Blood" by Ken Smith (

    “Mud and Blood” by Ken Smith (

    You’ll see a swirling image while the video loads.

But before you start thinking our world will become a virtual Clinton Highway of ads and signs, remember you have to subscribe to individual channels to see other people’s content. You will not be bombarded by digital graffiti, unless that’s what you’re into. Of course, Google Glass and whatever Apple comes up with will surely eclipse these early steps into the augmented world. But meanwhile Aurasma provides a glimpse of things to come and  an innovative outlet for artists.

You'll see a swirling image while the video loads.

You’ll see a swirling image while the video loads.


One of the videos attached to Ken Smith's paintings at the Fort Loudon Visitor Center.

One of the videos attached to Ken Smith’s paintings at the Fort Loudon Visitor Center.

© Buck Kahler, 2013.

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