Empow instructor shows augmented reality is not just for Pokémon GO fans
Many nights during this past summer, parks were literally crawling with kids. It’s an odd time to be out, but the kids, of course, weren’t there to kick a ball. They were there in search of Pokémon. The Pokémon GO phenomenon has mainstreamed the technology called augmented reality (AR), which superimposes digital images onto real-life backdrops. The blending of these two worlds has parents working to make sure kids are playing safely, while artists and advertisers are looking to capture the magic of this technology. The draw of AR is unlimited because, unlike virtual reality, which creates imaginary worlds that take users away, AR prompts users to interact with the physical world around them in a new way.
The fact that AR is so seductive is no surprise to Empow Studios instructor Kevin Ferreira, who has been enamored with digital art since he was 12 years old. Ferreira attended the New York Film Academy, has studied illustration and animation at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and works on children’s book illustration from his art studio called ‘Studio Ferreira.’ Years before Pokémon GO burst onto the scene, Ferreira was testing the limits of AR for educational purposes. Specifically, he was using it to enhance the art experience. Recently, I had a chance to talk with him about his various projects and how this technology will affect our experience with the world.
Q: What were your first thoughts about the use of AR?
A: Back in 2012, when I first encountered augmented reality, I was really excited. I could see the potential and it was staggering. My wife wasn’t as keen on it, but I explored it anyway. I knew then that being able to overlay an animated graphic on top of the real world was a unique opportunity to change how people experience life. As an artist, I imagined how someone could ideally walk down the street and see the world as I willed it to be; they could literally become my eyes and experience life in my vision. Instead of just looking at a Picasso or a Murakami, people could now live inside of those same paintings! This AR technology is just another extension of the artist’s paint brush – now capable of live magic.
Q: When did you first start working with AR?
A: I first used my passion for this technology in 2013 in Connecticut for ‘Paper to Pixel,’ an exhibit at the Vernon Art Center, which is now called Arts Center East. It was here that I received a grant to build a sculpture and create artwork that came alive through augmented reality. We partnered with Verizon and they brought in smartphones for the patrons to point at my artwork. That artwork then came alive with overlaid animation. It worked great. My favorite part was the reactions I got from kids looking at the work in front of them come alive. It was pure wonder and excitement; that kind of rare look that comes from not knowing how the magic is done. It was the same look I used to give when watching animation, which ultimately led to my needing to know how it was accomplished. A lot of kids get that look, that curiosity and zeal for knowing.
Q: You ultimately were invited to a Boston museum. Explain.
A: This past July, I was invited as a guest artist to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Here, I decided I wanted to teach people about augmented reality technology. I performed a story workshop where the public could come and participate in shaping a narrative by drawing a scene and then incorporating AR characters on top of their artwork. Again, that look of awe came across their faces, so I knew that it was a good event. Empow Studios provided the smart devices which contributed to the success and now offers the technology to their students as a learning tool. At Empow, where I currently work, we try to harness that zeal when we teach. It’s also the reason I decided to become a teacher for a STEAM company.
Q: How do you engage students? Do you have any tips?
A: We don’t have an AR specific class at Empow just yet and when I teach kids we always have a designated curriculum that’s important to maintain. However, if the kids can get ahead on their projects, I’ve been eager to give an extra side lesson on how AR works by offering a quick demo. The kids eat it up; they love seeing the environment come alive around them. I think using these new advancements in tech to spark passion in kids is important. They can use what they’ve learned to enhance the projects they’re working on or to dream about future applications. Before we can create anything in this world it has to be imagined first.
Q: Where do you see AR being applied in the future?
A: While working with and teaching about augmented reality, I’ve gained some insight about where I see this technology headed. First, it will be more useful when a hands-free device such as Google Glass becomes mainstream. If everyone who had a smartphone had a pair of smart glasses instead, I believe augmented reality would be everywhere already. If and when this is the case, the opportunity for advertisers is obvious. Whether or not we like it, overlaid digital billboards would be in our faces, popping out at us every time our glasses recognized a image. Augmented reality can use software that recognizes an image like in facial recognition, which will trigger an overlaid video, animation, or image. This technology literally brings your entertainment into the world around you. In the future your favorite TV show could be watched in an environment like Central Park where the main characters are running around. This environment recognition and overlay adaption is the next step and can be seen in devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens.
Q: How do you see AR enhancing education?
A: Augmented reality is already changing the way we learn and teach. For teachers, we now have AR tools that can immerse our students in the subject they’re interested in, which can literally be anything. I’ve always heard that the best way to learn is to actually go to the place you want to learn about; well, now you can virtually. The AR difference is that the virtual worlds can now interact and overlay on top of our physical reality. For example, medical students could interact with a physical dummy that has AR interactive graphics overlaid on top of it. They could simulate operations in real-time to see the results and learn from their mistakes. For students this kind of teaching can open new worlds not possible with the older educational models. One last example that I’ve really enjoyed was from a TED Talk by Alex Kipman where NASA took old data files, of topography maps and photographs, and brought them into a virtual environment. The researchers no longer had to stare into a screen and comb through thousands of these files to interpret the data, they could now overlay the landscape of Mars wherever they were. This new kind of interaction let them see the data in a more natural way while allowing them to perceive the information in a way they couldn’t before. I’m a futurist. So, as great as this achievement is, I know there’s another step coming; an even better one. After all, right now we can only see the world. We can’t feel it and interact with it fully…yet.
Q: You mentioned your wife wasn’t excited about AR in the beginning. How about now?
A: Oh, she’s all for it now! She said: “Don’t ever listen to me again.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And then she actually said it: “You were right, I was wrong.” I laughed thinking I must be dying; that she couldn’t really be saying I was right. But, about a week after the Pokémon GO craze began to take off, she saw the news and said: “Apparently I’m the only one who doesn’t get it, because this game has just topped one billion dollars!”
For more information about Kevin’s work, see the Empow Team page.
Do you have questions about Pokemon GO or AR? Post a comment and we’ll reply!