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Perspectives of Fingerprinted Paper

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If God is a DJ, Life is a dance floor, Love is the rhythm, You are the music
If God is a DJ, Life is a dance floor, You get what you’re given,
It’s all how you use it…

Nearly nothing, but then not nothing. A something, be it at least a web of empty spaces and subtle walls.
Peter Sloterdijk


Dutch software developer and acclaimed augmented reality specialist Layer recently introduced its newest asset to its product range, that of augmented yet traditionally printed paper. According to the Amsterdam-based company, this novelty was supposed to riot a storm of interest and swift adaptation with smartphone users around the world. The application was so new and so relevant that the technology would most certainly cause a near revolution in how people would not only feel enriched through old media (printed paper magazines for instance) but truly feel the benefits of having those existing and widely accepted traditionals blend with the newest state of the art technology of ‘fingerprinting’, that is, the adding the very same traditional paper with magical digital tricks: Magic Cellulose, be it in the appearance of magazines, posters or train tickets; a single push on a touch screen button of one’s smartphone would charm layers of information, infotainment and entertainment. Bearing this utopian depiction in mind, two major issues ascend.

The first major issue is the concept of the role of technology in our society. In this case the question could be what the advantages of fingerprinted paper are, with in its wake what the side question what the disadvantages are. The second major issue is that of the acceptance of new technology by people as such; what makes people (want to) use certain software, say, applications? This question may be outlined in what mainstream technology actually is and what is not. I shall elaborate these issues by employment of the technology of fingerprinted paper. I will describe three examples of fingerprinted paper employment. I shall elaborate on the acceptance of new technology and conclude this paper with a discussion on the two major issues. And I will attempt to place the development of blending traditional and digital technologies, in the case of this paper culminating in fingerprinted paper in the context of Augmented Reality as an apparent utopian quest.

But first, I would like to cite Jacques Ellul as he intrigues the minds over what technology actually is and how people deal with the phenomenon: “Self-augmentation [thus] encompasses two phenomena. On the one hand, technology has reached a point of evolution at which it keeps changing and progressing, with no decisive human intervention, by a kind of inner force, which compels it to grow and necessarily entails nonstop development. On the other hand, all people in our time are so passionate about technology, so utterly shaped by it, so assured of its superiority, so engulfed in the technological environment, that they are all, without exception, oriented toward technological progress, all working toward it, no matter what their trade, each individual seeking the best way to use his instrument or perfect a method, a device, etc.” (Ellul, p.209). In my opinion, Ellul has a rather deterministic viewpoint of what technology, let alone the (self-) augmentation through technology is. Technology may be an instrument, perhaps even a human tool, to achieve dreamt level of cohesion and social togetherness, bringing mankind the ultimate state of being, Utopia (or Walhalla or Cocagne to mention just two Western European varieties of Heaven on Earth.; they all appear to be fictions of a society that strives to create order and welfare.

In his Tantalisingly Close, Imar de Vries contemplates that “necessary fictions are part of a psychological need to create order out of chaos, to create utopian landmarks that we can look out for while travelling along the paths of life. Because, inevitably, a sense of hope is projected upon the creation and preservation of such landmarks, the genealogy of ideas of progress and utopian narratives has up to now predominantly been discussed in the light of how they present us with a pristine state of ‘better’” (De Vries, p.48).

This sense of immaculateness of the ‘better’ is of a utopic altitude and not often regarded in every day’s illusion. Yet, there is tendency to believe that many strive for finding the landmarks De Vries mentions. For many, those landmarks may be (new) technological applications that lead to euphorical states of mind. On the other hand, this utopian euphoria appears to be rather paradoxical as the notion of the attrition of history is more genealogical than linear. If the mentioned landmarks are the new applications that enrich people’s lives, than the adapting users – consumers or so called end-users – of the applications may reveal arguments of adaptation based on linearity as a historical palliation. And this soothing of thoughts may well lead to mass-confirmation, as Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1991) described it as The Spiral of Silence, a controversial and often contested media theory. The core of the theory is that people tend to have a sixth-sense to prevail the public opinion. This idea is rather disputable as it has never been proven and is therefore certainly not an acknowledged human property. The sixth-sense idea however does have a record in popular discourse and is alleged to sprout from the human property of being social, a vague Conditio Humana perhaps? In any case it appears to be a phenomenon for instance addressed by socialists from the perspective of human species as a social entity yet the topic has a rather high je ne sais pas value. Secondly the theory focuses on fear for isolation; people are said to be afraid to be excluded or disqualified from the group they live with. For this reason people conform to the general opinion within their drove. Thirdly, Noelle-Neumann states that people restrain from expressing the views of minorities for reasons of being excluded. In one sentence, people fear to be excluded from the group thus they confirm to the average – mediocre – and popular believes; people confirm to public sentiment. Perhaps this thought is a fundamental topos as it bears a strong visibility and agelessness. But we may wonder if it is true?

In Noelle-Neumann’s days, there was hardly any debate on the role of augmented media, let alone fingerprinted paper. Yet the concept of the Spiral of Silence mat be applicable to fingerprinted paper as it is a new and in many cases data-revealing medium that has not been adapted as mainstream yet and thus may function as an threatening outsider-medium, just like the early days of social media (and to a certain extent still as many domains of knowledge around the field of these media are just currently being explored.

One may question the significance of Augmented Reality and its numerous varieties of applications. Surely, one may easily depict applications from general use to niche purposed distraction. But if we contemplate the viability of an Augmented Reality descendant such as fingerprinted paper, we must research the intrinsic relevance of the technology. Chou et al. cite Azuma in their study on Augmented Reality Smartphone Environment Application state that “Augmented Reality is a variation of Virtual Reality. VR technology completely immerses users within a synthetic environment where users cannot see the real world around him, whereas AR allows the user to see the real world, with virtual objects superimposed upon or composited with the real world. AR supplements reality, rather than completely replacing it” (Azuma, 1997). This definition suggests that AR is an add-on to real life experiences as it ‘supplements reality’.

Is supplementation of reality the purpose of Augmented Reality specifically fingerprinted paper? It is said that the viability of inventions of technologies depends on who the inventor was and even more, what the intentions of the inventor were (are). The myth goes that if the inventor is a technocrat, the invention has potential viability but if the inventor of the technology was a social constructor, the invention was doomed to die. It seems an inveterate myth that can easily be refuted by looking into examples of the past and the present. One historical example perhaps is that of the invention of radio as a mass medium, another great example is that of the invention of the telephone when Graham Bell and others were deliberately looking for commercial applications based on the principles of electricity. And a more contemporary example is the invention of SMS on the moment that the acceptance and usage of mobile telephony reached a certain mass, a tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell[1] would like to call it. All examples became mainstream technology after an introductionary period that appears to have taken a long time: radio only became a mass medium when receivers became affordable for large audiences right after the First World War and even then did it take until the late thirties of the twentieth century before radio really took a run. Radio as mass medium really became mainstream when the world leaders during the eve of destruction discovered the potency and power of radio as a medium to influence masses of their citizens. Amongst these leader was satanic Joseph Goebbels who cheered in 1933 as he opened the Berlin Radio Exhibition: “The November Regime was not able to understand the full significance of the radio. Even those who claimed to have awakened the people and gotten them involved in practical politics were without exception almost blind to the possibilities of this modern method of influencing the masses” (Goebbels, 1933). Obviously, radio as a mass medium, including all technology involved was an invention within social experiments (the British and Americans also understood the qualities of radio as mass medium and influencing public sentiment.

The acceptance of the telephone needed deliberate marketing and hard personal selling by the inventors in the late seventies of the nineteenth century before the first local networks appeared, first in New York and spreading out as an oil stain ever since.

My third example, that of Short Message Service (SMS) also has a long history that peaked into a critical mass usage when another important invention, that of mobile telephony also peaked and became mainstream. It was already in the twenties of the twentieth century that RCA Communications first introduced telex as a side technology of radiotelegraphy using abbreviated text. Seventy years later:  “Hppy bthdy txt” went the gleeful message on Tuesday [December 3, 2002], as SMS, short messaging service or mobile phone texting marked its 10th birthday (December 3) with sections of a proud and doting UK hailing the “British idea that changed lives” around the world” as the journalist of the Times of India recalls “The world’s first mobile text message was an entirely naff “Merry Christmas” keyed in by engineer Neil Papworth of the British technology company Sema to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis in Newbury, southern England” (Ahmed, 2002). The technology was meant as a service for notificating a Vodafone subscriber that he or she had a voicemail waiting to be answered. Gradually, the technology expanded, culmination is one of the most popular communication technologies before Blackberry introduced its ‘Ping’ service based on ubiquitously available mobile Internet.

In this regard, it is now adroit to briefly discuss how people actually accept new technology; is there any ‘unified’ behavior of people adapting technology? Viswanath Venkatesh, Michael Morris, Gordon Davis and Fred Davis developed the TAM/UTAUT model that stands for Technology Acceptance Model/Unified Theory on the Acceptance and Usage of Technology as a behavioral model in an attempt to construe the psychology of acceptance of (new) technology. The model is based on eight models and theories of individual acceptance (Theory of Reasoned Action, Technology Acceptance Model, Motivational Model, Combined TAM/TPB model, Model of PC Utilization, Innovation Diffusion Model and the Social Cognitive Theory). And although dispute is always at its place when focusing on behavioral models, some of Venkatesh et al.’s findings do suggest certain unequivocality, even obviousness; “Seven constructs appeared to be significant direct determinants of intention or usage in one or more of the individual models. Of these, we theorize that four constructs will play a significant role as direct determinants of user acceptance and usage behavior: performance expectancy, effort expectancy, social influence, and facilitating conditions” (Venkatesh et al. p. 447). Apart from these four key determinants, the researchers have determined four influential aspects: gender, age, experience and voluntariness of use.

It must also be said that a model like the TAM/Utaut is no guarantee for unequivocal opinion on the issue of acceptance of (new) technology but the model does provide several tongs for structuring thoughts on the issue of viability of certain technologies in general and the future of fingerprinted paper in particular.

Before accosting the viability issue of fingerprinted paper, I now sketch he technology briefly and elaborate on three applications, namely glossy magazine, paper geographical maps and an art project. In these three cases main roles are intended for paper (obviously fingerprinted) and the smartphone.

Regularly, Dutch glossy Linda publishes special issues with what one may best regard as interactive paper, not digital paper but paper that has been printed on with a traditional printing method. The purpose is that one opens an app in one’s smartphone, scans a page in the magazine that is then augmented; a layer (or layers) of additional information are superimposed upon the image in the smartphone’s screen. So, through the screen of the smartphone one observes the page in the magazine, with a layer of additional information added, ranging from a plain text message, a clickable URL, or a static picture to a Youtube video.

Linda Magazine is certainly not the only to use this technology. US men’s magazine Esquire experimented with a similar technology[2] and there are more (commercial) examples available. For instance Dutch Football Magazine Voetbal International published its season listing handbook in an augmented issue and Dutch public broadcaster VPRO published a printed weekly TV guide in the same fashion.

“Fingerprinted paper, in collaboration with the use of a (mobile) smartphone, is regarded as a category of AR, Augmented Reality. AR at its turn is a variation of Virtual Reality. VR technology completely immerses users within a synthetic environment where users cannot see the real world around him, whereas AR allows the user to see the real world, with virtual objects superimposed upon or composited with the real world. AR supplements reality, rather than completely replacing it” (Azuma, 1997). Basically there are two types of AR applicable in both commercial as in non-commercial communication.

The first is Projection-based Augmentation: a category of augmentation that uses virtual imagery to augment live images captured with a camera. A good example is the projection of virtual advertising board on sport lawns in televised sports games. These boards look real but sporters may run straight through them as they do not exist other than on one’s television screen Recognition-based Augmentation. This category of augmentation uses recognition of shapes in real live to add a layer of information. Interactive paper is a typical example of this system of augmentation and will be discussed further on.

Then there is Location-based Augmentation: a form of augmentation that uses three-point geolocalization to understand where the activated application actually is and mashes this information up with vicinity information (nearby information). There is an increasing number of applications in this genre like Geo Layar, Google Goggle, Nokia City Lens, Wikitude, 7Scenes and many others.

Recognition-based Augmentation is not new. The development of AR started in the late sixties of last century when Ivan Sutherland created the first AR system in the form of a Head-Mounted-Display[3]. “And with the rise of portable and mobile devices, the development of AR is not just set in laboratories but applications are developed for them. But then, the popularity of augmented reality applications on mobile devices is increasing, but there is as yet little research on their use in real-settings” (Morrison et al., 2011).

The technology of fingerprinted paper can be described as images that are ‘optimized’ in databases by adding certain recognizable data. This optimization means that metadata are added (hyperlink information). When the camera detects an image, it is sent to the database for referral. If the system recognizes the optimizing data in the image, it adds the hyperlink to the image and sends it back to the application in the smartphone. The app in the smartphone now shows both the camera view and the added (interactive) information layer.

As such, in my opinion the technology as a concept is not that complicated, other than that visual recognition is a tiresome path. Without wanting to sound technologically determined, this technology might add value in particular circumstances and can therefor be of use. Whether this is to bring us closer to utopia as mentioned in the introductory words of this paper, remains to be seen. We would have to determine what we mean by utopia and, as De Vries questions, “this technology is yet another that problematizes the notion of data disclosure (under the guise of bringing us closer to utopia” (De Vries, 2012). Let me therefore end with a question by Wendy Chun: “is software ideology? Software perpetuates certain notions of seeing as knowing, of reading and readability that were supposed to have faded with the waning of indexicality. It does so by mimicking both ideology and ideology critique, by conflating executable with execution, program with process, order with action” (Chun, 2004). According to Chun, software is a set of instructions. This may very well be true but it does not tell us anything about the behavior of the people who are intended to adapt to the offered ‘enriching application that is supposed to bring us into utopian spheres. And with this increased popularity of mobile AR applications, it becomes important to invest in empirical studies in this area. “Field studies in particular are still scarce, but may impact heavily on development and design with many as yet unknown outcomes” (Morrison et al., 2011).

Mobile phones have evolved into powerful image and video processing devices equipped with high-resolution cameras, color displays, and hardware-accelerated graphics. They are also increasingly equipped with a global positioning system and connected to broadband wireless networks. All this enables a new class of applications that use the camera phone to initiate search queries about objects in visual proximity to the user. Such applications can be used, e.g., for identifying products, comparison shopping, finding information about movies, compact disks (CDs), real estate, print media, or artworks. First deployments of such systems include Google Goggles, Nokia Point and Find, Kooaba, Ricoh iCandy , and Amazon Snaptell (Girod et al., 2011).

Printed paper in coalition with an electronic device such as a smartphone can be complementary. In the domain of road maps we see that both paper maps as electronic maps as a single application have their strength and weaknesses. According to Paelke et.al, paper maps are cheap and very usable for many tasks, but lack the dynamic and interactive properties of electronic maps. Maps on handheld devices, on the other hand, have high potential for the presentation of up-to-date dynamic content, adapted specifically to the user, his current position and the task at hand, but often have critical shortcomings in resolution, ease of control and reliability. A meaningful integration of paper maps and electronic devices that combines the respective benefits seems therefore highly attractive (2010).

Wearable computing provides an exciting way to explore augmented realities and begins to fulfill the promise of a truly personal digital assistant. While wearable computing augmented realities imply the potential for significant additional informational sources for the user, the implementations described also provide better ways of managing such information. “The result is a rich combination of physical and virtual realities that can intelligently assist the user instead of overwhelming him” (De Vries, 2012).

Printed-paper in coalition with an electronic device such as a smartphone can be complementary. In the domain of road maps for instance, we see that both paper maps as electronic maps as a single application have their strength and weaknesses. According to Paelke et.al, “paper maps are cheap and very usable for many tasks, but lack the dynamic and interactive properties of electronic maps. Maps on handheld devices, on the other hand, have high potential for the presentation of up-to-date dynamic content, adapted specifically to the user, his current position and the task at hand, but often have critical shortcomings in resolution, ease of control and reliability. A meaningful integration of paper maps and electronic devices that combines the respective benefits seems therefore highly attractive” (Paelke, 2010).

One gamified application of this type of augmentation is that of augmented maps and, without pinpointing the abundance of (possible) superimposing, it is these practicalities that lead to an emerging usage by audiences. A good example is Ann Morrison’s collaborate project Maplens for Nokia Symbian smartphones using GPS. The Finnish-Australian researcher elaborates that

One of the most important issues for cities today is Environmental Awareness. The EU’s environmental laws help protect against water, air and noise pollution and control risks related to chemicals, biotechnology and nuclear energy. The Environmental Awareness projects contribute to the image (promotion) and to the experience and understanding that people have of pollution and energy usage that is not necessarily self-evident in their cities and homes, and also how their actions as individuals can impact upon their immediate environment. As Morrison states at her website[4]:

Our aim is to enable local inhabitants to interact with technologies that inform and disseminate information on their environment, as well as integrating these interactive technologies into existing urban and home space environments and activities.

To do so we look at the usefulness of:

  • Public social experiments where the public have access to monitoring devices 
  • Public access to pervasive computing that supports sustainability-related behavioral changes
  • Integration of interactive environmental awareness demonstrations as mobile, public display and pervasive computing environments
  • Mobility using technologies that map how groups and individuals move around the city and how that then impacts upon the environment
  • Public Display of information that can inform and make aware city dwellers for their environment and widen participants’ perception and understanding of environmental issues
  • Pervasive Computing for supporting awareness of the impact of mobility choices within the city
  • Pervasive Computing for supporting awareness of the impact of energy choices within the home 

In the case of Ann Morrison’s example, the fingerprinted – augmented – paper bears the advantage that specific, time-related information such as temporary obstructions for instance of roads or other infrastructural temporalities need not be printed (in ink) on the paper thus making the tangible, paper map only valid for a very short period of time. By fingerprinting the map with the latest details, details that often only appear for a very short period of existence, paper maps are not obsolete within short periods of time. One may question why not draw the ever changing obstacles in only a digital version of the map straight away. The solution provided by the fingerprinting in this case allows users to receive current detailed information without having to click in to GPS bearings that, in certain areas are not available. Obviously, there must be a connection with the Internet to receive augmented information through one’s smartphone when observing the map. It is in this blending of media that we may find reason for viability of the technology.

Wendy Mackay and Anne-Laure Fayard explored the design of interactive (augmented or fingerprinted) paper in their 1999 paper “Designing Interactive Paper: Lessons from three Augmented Reality Projects”.  At the end of the twentieth century, AR was a Zeitgeist-like topic with developments in the field of augmentation and the blending of reality with hyper worlds: “Augmented Reality offers a new paradigm for interacting with computers, linking familiar, physical objects to powerful computer networks. Although still in its infancy, the field is expanding rapidly, due to a wealth of new materials and technologies and a shift away from conventional notions about human-computer interaction. The increasing power and decreasing size of computers, the development of materials such as electronic ink and paper, and the recent explosion of the world-wide web, make Augmented Reality the user interface of the future” (Mackay & Fayard, 1999).

Ever since those days, augmented reality knowledge has emerged rapidly but it was not until 2010 that the first commercial applications appeared, with Layar’s Vision as one of the most bespoken examples. Meanwhile Mackay and Fayard argue that paper can be regarded as a physical object, an augmented object and an augmented object. Paper, the authors say, “Paper has physical characteristics, called affordances, that affect how it is used. Not only is it lightweight and flexible, but it is easy to annotate and personalize. People take advantage of minute, seemingly irrelevant details (a dog-eared corner, a coffee stain, a hand-written mark) to quickly identify particular paper documents. People go beyond officially-sanctioned uses, inventing new uses based on the situation at hand” (Mackay and Fayard, 1999). And regarding the social artifactality of paper the authors say: “People use paper within a historical and social context. Video producers use storyboards and construction engineers use drawings as the focus of collaborative work. Handing a physical document from one person to another implies a direct exchange of responsibility for it, particularly for construction engineers handling changes on drawings and controllers handing off planes” (id.). And lastly, they see paper as an augmented object when they contemplate that “[A]ugmenting paper solves a number problems when the physical nature of paper and its social role are important in the application. However, interactive paper can also introduce confusion. People intuitively understand the laws of nature with respect to physical objects. Although less reliable, people also have a set of beliefs about how the software they use works” (id.).

It is mainly in the last sentence of previous quote that we may search the social and technological relevance of fingerprinted paper. People have a set of believes of how certain software works, what it brings them, what it does and what it takes to work with it. This implies that software as such is an object of consideration and not necessarily a natural fact or an issue of immediate understanding in terms of acceptance and deployment. One may and perhaps should wonder and criticize what the explicit virtues of certain inventions are; do they serve a general purpose, do they serve a specific purpose, are they ethically acceptable, are they harming us?

As a conclusion and source for discussion, I will now return to the title of this explorative paper, the perspectives of fingerprinted paper, questioning what those perspectives may be.

“If God is a DJ, Life is a dance floor, You get what you’re given, It’s all how you use it”, singer Pink twaddled a couple of years ago and somehow these lyrics have affected my observations of what reality (including non-reality) is; it is how you see it. Fingerprinted – augmented – paper undoubtedly has virtues that can enrich visions of people, even merely by adding virtuality to the individually perceived reality.

The question remains whether fingerprinted paper will ever become mainstream technology; adapted by the majority in society and used as popular applications in smartphones like SMS, Outlook or the alarm that wakes the majority of people each morning. In any case, I do believe that there is relevance for the technology, be it in more closely defined circumstances such as professional environments.

As to the commercial application of fingerprinted paper, I must admit that it may not ‘fly’ to a fullness as given credit to in advance; it simply is not being adapted by the audiences at this moment but it may some day but only if there is a compelling proposition for the use of the technology. And that remains to be seen.




Ahmed, R.Z, (2013) UK hails 10th birthday of SMS. The Times of India, December 4, 2002, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/UK-hails-10th-birthday-of-SMS/articleshow/30216466.cms? Visited May 20, 2013.

Chao, P.Y., Chen, G.D. (2009). Augmenting paper-based learning with mobile phones. Interacting with Computers 21, p. 173 – 185

Chou, T.L., ChanLin, L.J., (2012). Augmented reality smartphone environment orientation application: a case study of the Fu-Jen University mobile campus touring system. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 46, p. 410 – 416.

De Vries, I.O. (2012). Tantalisingly Close. Amsterdam University Press

De Vries, I.O. (2012). Through the looking cellphone screen – Dreams of omniscience in an age of mobile augmented reality. Unpublished and non-disclosed.

Ellul, J. (1980). The Technological System. The Continuum Publishing Corporation. New York.

Grasset, R., Dünser, A., Billinghurst, M. (2008). Edutainment with a Mixed Reality Book: A visually augmented illustrative childrens’ book. HIT Lab NZ, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ha, T., Billinghurst, M., Woo, W. (2012). An interactive 3D movement path manipulation method in an augmented reality environment. Interacting with Computers 24, p. 10 – 24.

Höllerer, T., Feiner, S., Terauchi, T., Rashid, G. & Hallaway, D. (1999). Exploring MARS: developing indoor and outdoor user interfaces to a mobile augmented reality system. Computers & Graphics 23, p. 779 – 785.

Hull, J.J., Erol, B., Graham, J., Ke, Q., Kishi, H., Moraleda, J. & Van Olst, D.G. (2007). Paper-Based Augmented Reality. 17th International Conference on Artificial Reality and Telexistence.

Lee, J.Y., Seo, D.W., Rhee, G. (2008). Visualization and interaction of pervasive services using context-aware augmented reality. Expert Systems with Applications 35, p. 1873 – 1882

Mackay, W., Fayard, A.L. (1999). Designing Interactive Paper: Lessons from three Augmented Reality Projects. Department of Computer Science, Université de Paris-Sud and EDF- Electricité de France.

Morrison, A., Mulloni, A., Oulasvirta, A., Jacucci, G., Peltonen, P., Smalstieg, D. & Regenbrecht, H. (2011). Collaborative use of mobile augmented reality with paper maps. Computers & Graphics 35, p. 789 – 799.

Paelke, V., Sester, M. (2007). Design Exploration of Augmented Paper Maps. IKG – Institute of Cartography and Geoinformatics, Leibniz University of Hanover.

Robinson, J.A., Robertson, C. (2001). The LivePaper system: augmenting paper on an enhanced. Computers & Graphics 25 p. 731 – 743.

Venkatesh et al. (2003). User acceptance of information technology: Toward a unified view. MIS Quarterly, 27(No. 3), 425

Wither, J., DiVerdi, S., Höllerer, T. (2009). Annotation in outdoor augmented reality. Computers & Graphics 33, p. 679 – 689

Azuma, R.T. (2011). Special Section on Mobile Augmented Reality. Computers & Graphics 35. P. vii – viii.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell (2000), The Tipping Point, Little Brown, New York

Written by Kees Winkel

May 29, 2013 at 22:40

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Are Games Spatial?

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In this reflection I do not attempt to answer the rather capacious question of what a game really is nor do I necessarily address the topic of what the role of games in human life is. These highly relevant questions are filleted and attempted to answer by others. My question for this reflection is about the territory of games with the core question whether games are spatial and if they are and what spatiality is in relation to games; can we altogether talk about a game space and to what extent is that space physical or tangible? This question arose during a recent discussion about the Magic Circle, say the playground of a game as coined originally by Johan Huizinga in his Homo Ludens (1938) and developed by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in Rules of Play (2003) as a game design tool and ending up in a metaphor that has transcended the original connotation given by the mentioned authors to a multitude as manifested in everlasting comment threads in blogs by authors like Zimmerman[1].


According to the introductory words in Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens, “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course” (Huizinga p. 10). By choosing these words to distinguish the boundaries of a game, Huizinga also chose for a rather sacral phrasing of his description of what game space is or could be according to him. He speaks for instance of the consecrated spot, the arena, the temple and the Magic Circle, a choice of words with a rather esoteric jot to them, if not taken from cleric worlds. Interpreting this type of discourse, Huizinga appears to be a devoted follower of a near religious belief in the divinity of the greatness of the Game. In the very same introduction to his book, Huizinga employs superlatives to underline this believe and that is, by no means, to be reproved. In fact, as one of the first chroniclers of the phenomenon of games, Huizinga treats us with an in-depth understanding of the role and importance of games and gaming as he attempts to construe its relevance in life.

Let us be aware of the time frame, the Zeitgeist, in which Huizinga developed his insights. It was the end of the Interbellum and it was The Netherlands. All through Huizinga’s book, there are signs of his socio-political and economic engagement although the author never mentions the ensnarer by name. Huizinga’s thoughts (as expressed in the 1955 edition of Homo Ludens) like war itself might be regarded as a form of divination and in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible do shed a clear light on the underlying philosophy of the Dutch historian when addressing the issue of the purpose, say the role, of games in human life; it develops civilization. Perhaps that is why Huizinga chose the rather pompously phrased conception of the Magic Circle as the metaphor for the playground of games, a metaphor that became an object of discussion decades later.


In the first sentence of his Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later, Eric Zimmerman (with Katie Salen with whom he rote Rules of Play in 2003 in mind) laments a definition for the Magic Circle as “[it] is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game (Zimmerman, 2012). According to the incited gamed designer, the Magic Circle is a design principle, a core game concept rather, just as there are a half dozen more. Zimmerman acknowledges the fact that he and his co-author borrowed the word from Huizinga as they also borrowed the term Lusory Attitude from Bernard Suits’ Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia to connote the specific attitude a player must have to enter into the play of a game. Apparently both conceptions were regarded as master concepts in the philosophy of Games as they grew out to overly exceed their original connotations and Zimmerman never anticipated that such conceptions (Magic Circle and Lusory Attitude) could ever have aroused so much discussion and confusion, let alone that it had ever been his goal to create such babel.

Zimmerman does agree however, that a game takes place in a certain space thus assigning space an important role in the whole conception, recognition and acceptation of a game. In fact, it is by far more a pondered idea than Hector Rodriguez who defines the Magic Circle as a spatiotemporal frame “which isolates their [the gamers] game from the more serious tasks of daily living” (Rodriguez, 2006). Otherwise, he does mention, “that within the Magic Circle, the rules of a game hold absolutely” (Rodriguez, 2006), therefore attributing at least this Huizinga thesis to the conception of Game. But what does that say about the spatiality of games? Are games subject to the notion of space? And what then is space?


According to Chinese-Americans geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “space and place are components of environment” (Tuan, p.v) and there is a distinct difference between Space and Place: “Place is security, space is freedom” (Tuan, p.3) and as we know from Huizinga, play is freedom as well as it is a voluntary decision to play or not. Should we then better look at Place, as it appears to be more concrete, perhaps even more physical, tangible, then Space?

Again Tuan may enlighten us on Babylon’s tower of disarray as he speaks of children’s perception of Place: “A child’s idea of place becomes more specific and geographical as he grows. To the question, where do you like to play? a two-year-old will probably say “home” or “outdoors.” An older child will answer “in my room” or “in the yard.” Locations become more precise” (Tuan, p.30) and may eventually boil down to that cardboard on the table or rendering on the computer screen.

The two conceptions of Place and Space remain cause for confusion although the question whether games are spatial has not been cleared to our satisfaction. Tuan distinguishes two important notions that relate to Space: the spatial ability and knowledge of people. “With the help of the mind, human spatial ability (though not agility) rises above that of all other species. Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and changes of location can be envisaged” (Tuan, p.67).

If we would decide that games are spatial, our decision would imply that games are about movement and location. That, at its turn, would imply that games deal with certain dimensions: “Spatial dimensions such as vertical and horizontal, mass and volume are experiences known intimately to the body; they are also felt whenever one sticks a pole in the ground, builds a hut, smoothens a surface for threshing grain, or watches a mound of dirt pile up as one digs a deep well. But the meaning of these spatial dimensions gains immeasurably in power and clarity when they can be seen in monumental architecture and when people live in its shadow” (Tuan, p.108). The question now rises whether we can decide on games having spatial dimension.


Huizinga also suggested that play is limited, meaning that it always requires place and time” ‘both combine strict rules with genuine freedom” (Huizinga, p.22). Perhaps it is in this limitation that we find reason to commit to agreeing the spatiality of games.


A last element of spatiality of games I would like to contribute is that of what Huizinga calls “the sense of limited mobility or freedom of movement” (Huizinga p.38) and it is in this detail that we may consider the spatiality of games as a (depicted) place for play. Already dimensions were mentioned as prerequisites for spaciality and now, on the very same page Huizinga quotes the President of the Netherlands Bank that, in the cause of devaluation of the (pre-war) Guilder, “in so restricted an area as is now left for it [the devastating quality of the Dutch economy in the late thirties of last century], the Gold Standard cannot play” (id.). How staggering it is to find quotations like these about playing space, availability of space, locative space, still after more than seventy years. It raises the question whether space is limited (as Tuan places Space between two extremities).


We play the game. We do so voluntary, often in a preset amount of time. We expect a certain outcome – a winner and thus a looser, perhaps even a certain sensation. We do so by obeying negotiated rules and we do so by agreeing on boundaries; if we step out of the collateral lines; we are not in the game any more and the game will be (temporarily) stopped. We will only restart the game play after we have re-entered the within the boundaries, the playing field, the space of which we have agreed the game rules to be applicable; the Magic Circle. Every game has its own disposition, its own character, its own sphere; it always obeys to prerequisites that are agreed upon before the game is played. One of those prerequisites appears to be spatial; space, game space as it is within its boundaries from where a game play commences or not, leaving those out of the boundaries as spectators. Or, are they participants as well?



Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens. A study of the play-element in culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston and Henley.

Rodriguez, H. (2006). The playful and the serious. An approximation to Huizinga’s homo ludens. Games Studies, 6(1), May 2013.

Salen K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience (6th ed. 2008). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked around by the magic circle – clearing the air ten years later. Retrieved May 14, 2013, 2013, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php

Written by Kees Winkel

May 23, 2013 at 10:31

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