JR’s Latest Project Is a Big Collective iPhone “Places” Map

The award-winning artist teams up with experiential art venture Superblue and developer Niantic to launch an AR-based community network that lets users upload personal memories to physical locations. Billed as the world’s largest participatory art project, the endeavor also raises concerns about Niantic’s trove of user data.

(FROM LEFT) JR with a mural. Screenshot of the Superblue app.

When Pokémon Go burst onto the scene, in 2016, most of the 500 million users who downloaded the mobile app within its first year had yet to see anything like its forward-thinking use of augmented reality. The ultra-popular game, developed by Niantic with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, saw aspiring trainers hunt, capture, and raise the fictional creatures all over the world, creating an early example of what’s now known as the metaverse. Now, Niantic is bringing that winning formula to JR Reality, an AR-based community network launched by Superblue and artist JR that’s billed as the world’s largest participatory art project. 

JR Reality’s premise is simple: Anyone who downloads Superblue’s mobile app can share their own firsthand experiences—a portrait, personal photograph, or voice message—of places around their city. Each image gets uploaded to a virtual map that other users can access and explore, making the app a collaborative virtual journal filled with personal stories rooted in physical places. Using AR and Niantic’s Lightship Visual Positioning System, which makes it so that AR experiences can be tethered to a physical location rather than floating haphazardly through a phone’s camera view, the community experiment invites users to go outside, explore their surroundings, and leave virtual messages on a living mural. The first phase kicks off in San Francisco, but will roll out to New York, London, Paris, Miami, and Los Angeles in the coming months.

“Have you ever passed somebody on the street and wondered what their story is? Or looked up through a window and wondered who lives there?” JR asks in a release. “In my latest work, everyone is invited to leave portraits and voice messages attached to a special place. It’s time to go outside and explore, and reconnect with one another and show the world your face again. Together we can tell the world your story and meet the amazing people that live in your city.”

Superblue app

JR Reality serves as an extension of the artist’s 2013 Inside Out Project, a platform that empowers communities to weigh in on pressing issues such as diversity, gender-based violence, climate change, and LGBTQ rights. Inspired by his own large-format street paintings, the project is available for anyone around the world to participate by wheatpasting large-scale portraits in public spaces. The results have been both compelling and controversial; per The New Yorker, “a participant in Iran, at grave personal risk, posted an image of a defiant-looking woman beneath a state-sponsored billboard” and “Russian gay rights activists protested with the images and were briefly imprisoned in Moscow.” 

Niantic’s trove of spatial data gathered through Pokémon Go and soon JR Reality is raising red flags with privacy experts who’ve expressed concerns about what AR means for public surveillance. They worry that the vast amount of information may be vulnerable to hacks, meaning that some user movements could be tracked in real time. Police search warrants, for example, have sourced footage from Amazon’s Alexa and Ring cameras.

Niantic CEO John Hanke, however, believes that AR will soon enter daily life in increasingly sophisticated ways—a key step toward “opening this science fiction reality we dream about,” he tells Time. “We can start putting virtual things into the world that are attached to the right parts of that physical world. Our big thesis is that the metaverse is something that happens out in the real world.” Few other innovators are talking about how the metaverse can actually integrate with the physical world, which perhaps may be the nascent technology’s most useful application.

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