Improved reality, smart cities, and Big Computing

Lev Manovich lists two types of digitally altered reality: virtual reality and augmented reality. He defines the latter as ” the laying of dynamic and context-specific information over the visual field of a user”. Two lectures yesterday at the Alan Turing Institute on smart cities, by Prof Phil Blythe and Prof Sir Alan Wilson make me think there is a third option, which you might call ‘adaptive reality’ or even ‘improved reality’.

No-one is actually clear what a smart city is, but various cities are trying: Glasgow, and Manchester, for example. Prof Blythe believes that we are on the cusp of something exciting, but it is not quite clear what. He listed several ideas:

  • Smart infrastructure or condition monitoring
  • Rural bus networks might be driverless (this will lead to major cost savings allowing these routes to stay open).
  • Smart homes and smart grid, integrated with electric cars.
  • Vehicles could receive real-time maps of the road network, allowing them to find and book parking spaces. (A lot of time and fuel is wasted looking for parking in cities.)
  • Much of the technology already in place: eg cruise control, which could be set by the road, or distance sensing. These could be adapted for ‘vehicle platooning’, where a chain of cars follow the speed of the car in front, driven by a human; other drivers may be in their cabs but can relax until they peel off near their destination. (However, this might require dedicated lanes on the motorways.)
  • New business models such as Mobiity As A Service. Perhaps a personal real-time ‘travel agent’ on your mobile, which could broker the best journey options based on time, cost, etc. Shared vehicle use would reduce parking needs, and free up space. The ultimate goal is a fleet of driverless cars, which you would order for a specific journey. They would arrive at your door, take you wherever you wish in the most efficient manner, and go away when you have finished with them.
  • Car manufacturers might become suppliers to someone else who sells mobility service? Even if you own the vehicle all the time, it may be digitally altered. Elon Musk was apparently told that Tesla cars stop too jerkily, so he had his engineers update the software and distribute updates overnight.
  • Driver assistance is likely to be progressively implemented over time. Already apparently some insurance companies offer voluntary ‘black boxes’ which sense driving patterns. You get an insurance premium refund if the box thinks you are driving safely.

With tongue in cheek, Prof Blythe also showed a film, Rush Hour, to suggest how precise control of traffic might allow more vehicles to use more space!

He ended by saying that he did not see a “magic bullet” for transport, but there will be a series of marginal gains that will lead to major changes. In each of these cases, I suggest reality is being digitally improved: it senses your presence or your needs, and adapts to meet them. This is a stage beyond Manovich’s augmented reality: he seems to limit this to surveillance and the presentation of data. (“Augmented space is the physical space which is ‘data dense’, as every point now potentially contains various information which is being delivered to it from elsewhere. At the same time, video surveillance, monitoring, and various sensors can also extract information from any point in space, recording the face movements, gestures and other human activity, temperature, light levels, and so on. Thus we can say that various augmentation and monitoring technologies add new dimensions to a 3-D physical space, making it multidimensional.”)

Reminds me of an excellent series of artistic experiments with ‘data density’ in February this year.

Prof Sir Alan Wilson spoke about mathematical representations or simulations of cities.

He claimed the life expectation in Edinburgh varies from 80 years on one side of the “Leith Canal” to 56 years on the other.

His talk was highly mathematical, but made the point that the ‘big data’ revolution relies very heavily on the ‘big computing’ revolution. For example, he wrote a model of retail centres in London which had a 200 by 600 matrix (ie 120,000 cells). Without the speed of modern machines this would be almost impossible to run. Interestingly, its main output is a graphic: an interface that allows a human to gain a broad understanding of trends in the data.


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