How augmented reality will make street art come to life

A moving mural by street artist Eduardo Kobra is one of the first fruits of a revolution about to take the art world by storm.

Eduardo Kobra's ARt Salvador Dali mural in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Mussa)
Eduardo Kobra's ARt Salvador Dali mural in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Mussa)

Amid vagabonding taco trucks and art galleries, in Miami’s sunny art district, Wynwood, there are blocks and blocks of mural-embossed buildings. It’s a neighborhood with fantastic imagery only limited to an artist’s imagination. It’s also a community that is using technology in an unprecedented way to engage smartphone-distracted passersby.


Indeed, it’s here, among walls that have borne murals of Yoda wielding a “Stop Wars” sign and an elephant with a swaying bouquet of tentacle-like trunks, that a curious new spray-painted mural has been beguiling locals and visitors alike for months. If Miami creatives are right, then this particular work, by street artist Eduardo Kobra, is one of the first fruits of a revolution about to take the art world by storm.


A panel from Eduardo Kobra's 80-meter mural '
Give peace a Chance' (2015) in Miami, Florida. (Credit: Eduardo Kobra)

Fittingly, one of the subjects of the massive mural, emblazoned on the exterior of a restaurant named R House, is Salvador Dali. With a surprised gaze, the surrealist looks on with a rainbow-checkered pattern across his face. The mural already looks bold and vibrant, much like the other works across the neighborhood. It’s not like every other mural, though. When an in-the-know passerby points their smartphone to the work the image becomes animated via augmented reality.

On the phone’s screen, the colorful blocks begin to be swept away, as though by the wind, revealing a black-and-white checkered underlayer. It’s in this grayscale scene that a butterfly with ultraviolet wings flits and rests on Dali’s cheek, sending his eyes into rolling excitement. To the naked eye, the mural is static, immutable, but with AR the image is placed within a dynamic scene.

South Florida-based artists, such as Luis Valle, who has spraypainted murals across Miami, say this particular intersection of technology and art is thrilling. Valle believes AR will help creatives better connect their work with onlookers because of its ability to make art more evocative.  

“The technology is brand new and only the beginning. What we can do with it is only limited to what we can think up,” Valle tells Big Think. “It definitely does enliven the art experience. Everyone has a smartphone these days and with AR you can add many added elements to an art piece. You can add sound, motion and 3D elements to the experience, which affects more of your senses.”

Dubbed 'ARt', pieces where augmented reality and art converge aren’t just bringing passersby together in wide-eyed clusters, they’re also bringing artists closer to their tech-savvy counterparts. For instance, when Valle decided to make new business cards, he collaborated with the AR team that brought Kobra’s mural into motion, Mussa. The result? Cards and promotional posters that, when viewed on the company’s app, conjure up one of Valle’s characters, El Shamansito—a skull-faced demigod, of sorts.

“So far my experience has been with my logo and character, El Shamansito,” Valle says. “With this, I worked with the AR team as far as telling them what I would like to see happen with my character as it comes out of my logo. We talked about motion and sound, as well as effects. Then there was the actual modeling part. I had to work with them by showing 2D samples of the character so that the 3D graphics team could turn the character into a 3D model with animation around. There were a few modifications and adjustments but we got to a place where we felt pleased with the results.”


Augmented reality at Museu de Mataró, an example of how AR can enhance the museum experience. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the collaboration process becomes increasingly streamlined, ARt may begin to pop up, en masse, in other cities across the United States—and the world. Not just in New York galleries and trendy events such as Art Basel, but just like Pokémon gave people the motivation to traverse their hometowns, and discover new spots, ARt is expected to give people an initiative to discover what dynamic visuals the street art in their neighborhoods may be quietly hiding.

“The technology is poised to become an integral aspect of how we interact with our environment, and allows us to connect individuals with their communities through AR experiences created around public art,” says Leon Posada, who co-founded Mussa two years ago with his friend Ignacio Montes. “The technology has the potential to turn individuals from passive observers to active participants.”

However, there are still some criticisms of the emerging technology’s liaison with art. Shoshana Resnikoff, curator of Miami Beach’s Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, believes augmented reality’s success in the art world depends on whether the experiences arouse people’s interest in the world around them.

“I’m definitely intrigued by the potential of AR to reach people who are otherwise engaged in their phones, but it’s also important to remember that one of the most valuable aspects of art is its ability to pull us away from our daily distractions and get us looking and thinking differently about the world around us,” Resnikoff tells Big Think. “Experiencing the art itself through the phone may or may not impact that—it’s all about how it’s implemented.”

This said, Resnikoff foresees a future in which fine ARt—as opposed to visual gimmicks—will be a supplement to in-depth art interpretation rather than a replacement of it. “When applied thoughtfully, AR can provide valuable context to art and objects in a gallery environment or a public space, helping visitors to understand art experientially, not just through a static viewing experience,” she says.

So long as the augmented reality component remains thoughtful, centered on expanding a work’s experience, then ARt may literally change how we view and experience art. The ultimate goal? Getting people excited about checking out museums, galleries, and their neighborhood streets. “Now that artists are integrating new technologies like AR and VR into their work,” says Posada, “the sky is the limit as to how far we can go as an art community.”

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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