Augmented reality stargazing: unintended consequences

For generations it has been a tradition on the French side of my family to spend summer evenings out in the garden looking at the stars. I happen to know that this is something my great-grand parents were doing from at least their retirement in the 60s, and it is what other families in the village were doing too. When televisions arrived, neighbours didn’t give up their stargazing; they simply opened the windows wide, put the TV on inside and watched it from outside, while still inclined heavenwards.

By the time of my childhood in the 80s, I have no memory of seeing other families outside gazing upwards in the evenings. I wonder if the people watching televisions from their gardens had switched to sitting inside and watching TV with the window open so they could see the stars, to eventually shutting out the stars altogether. But my grandparents, to their credit, shunned the phosphorus screens for the slower moving celestial entertainment.

It is for this reason that I have spent hundreds of nights staring at the same patch of sky from the same particular orientation. I know where the first star usually shines from; where the great bear appears over the horizon; where to expect to see different clusters and motifs of stars. But despite hours of dedicated study, I, nor any of my ancestors seems to have had any definitive knowledge of what any of the stars or constellations actually are. There has been much speculation and debate. That flickering red dot just above the horizon early in the evening must be mars/ no it can’t possibly be mars because it is always in the same place/ it’s actually called Beetlejuice. Our collective space ignorance is further demonstrated when we try and point out to one another where a satellite may be seen crossing the sky: you see that bright star, straight above? Go left a bit to the next bright star, then to that square of really dim stars, then go west about twelve inches, and you’ll see the satellite heading towards to the house.

I share all this to give a sense of the utter familiarity to me of this particular sky-scape, like someone who knows the view from their childhood bedroom window so well that it is impossible that anyone could show them anything new; a scene that is understood through layers of explanation, agreed between generations but never verified, so that you will appreciate the impact on me of downloading for the first time a star identification app and pointing it at the sky. It was as if I had been given a new set of glasses without ever having known that eyes were blurry.

All of a sudden, constellations stretched out in front of me. Scorpio reclining on the horizon, the diving fish of Pisces leaping over the trees in the east. I am looking at the same sky but I am seeing new things – this is augmented reality. That red star of which we had spent so many evenings arguing turns out to be the centre of the galaxy – incredible. I really felt ecstatic. We call out to each other, pointing out new things that we can see with more excitement and intensity than we have mustered for years from these seats.

The next evening, we return to the garden excited to return to our star-gazing. But I sense a subtle shift has come over us. The focus is on the screen and not on the sky; on the augmented reality rather than boring old reality. When the app loses its calibration, I start to believe what the screen tell me rather than what I can see with my eyes, even when the two clearly don’t line up. When I’ve got bored of looking at the app, I start to look at other apps: since I’ve got my screen out why not check my messages quickly. And at this moment the spell of stargazing is broken.

Very quickly the situation seems to be changing from one in which we sat under the cloak of the stars, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence, but always together, to one in which we are close-by but in separate worlds. I wonder if in a few years’ time a natural evolution of this scenario will be for us to sit inside where the light is better and check our messages there – with the windows open so we can still see the stars, like our predecessors did two generations ago with their televisions.

This future scenario that I present is of course by no means a foregone conclusion, but it has the characteristics of a pattern that I see myself falling into: using digital technology to solve or augment a particular situation, but in doing so, introducing a set of unintended behaviours, that overall serve to diminish the situation.

Of course none of this information is new. The Greeks new about these constellations. We just needed the technology to help us remember. Now that I know what I am looking at, I need to remember to turn my phone off again.