Ever wanted to see the eyes, teeth and texture of a crocodile close up – enough to make you jump out of your skin and run for your life? The Solar Whisper Company in Queensland, Australia can help out. It offers ‘Croc Cam’ binoculars that can magnify wildlife by focusing “the camera on animals allowing you to identify using the onboard screen.” No more fiddling with the focus rings – just look at a zoomed digital image of the crocodile on the screen rather than using old-fashioned binoculars or even the naked eye…
I’ve spent the last week with friends in remote Northern Queensland, enjoying the unknown, the unexpected and the uncertain. We’ve been to an Aborigine dance festival, explored the rain forest, camped under a star-studded sky with the Southern Cross shining bright, and snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef. What struck me about all of these out-of-the-ordinary places, besides being utterly magical, was how they didn’t need to be enhanced through digital technology. Their beauty in the raw took our breath away. To be swallowed up by a dense forest of over-sized tropical plants; to hear piercing mysterious sounds at every turn; to be surrounded by schools of dancing day-glow fish; to be floating above an amazing bed of multi-textured coral; to drive into a full moon rising slowly above you on a straight empty road – all leave you in awe and remind you of just how small you are. They don’t need to be enlarged or brought into focus. If you want to find out a bit more there are ample pamphlets, signs and maps, provided at the sites and information centers. And they don’t need to be spoken about by a jolly recorded voice. Every national park or discovery centre (e.g. Daintree Centre), it seems, now offer various audio tours in multiple tourist languages to transport you back to another time and place.
All of which causes me considerable dissonance since much of the research in my field is driven by a motivation to come up with novel technologies that will enhance our experiences of the places we visit. The aim is to enable people to learn more about what they are seeing and to decide where next to go whilst interacting with digital resources in situ. However, besides the joy of snapping photos, I am coming to the conclusion that many of these other technologies are superfluous. They seem like overkill, masking the magic of what it means to hear and see nature in the wild.
I have had many discussions with Margot, a fellow interaction design professor who invited me on the trip, about the value of technology interventions in places ‘out there’ (as opposed to ‘in there’, e.g., offices, homes, libraries, shopping malls). When walking through the rain forest we both agreed that whilst it seems obvious and useful to have ‘a mobile app’ that could answer the kid’s and our own questions whenever they popped up, such as what is that, why are those fruit so blue, who eats them and so on – the real joy is to simply wonder. Maybe we don’t need instant information at our fingertips that gratifies our here and now curiosity. Maybe, it is better to try to conjure up a response to one’s own questions and let this lead to further questions, however, lateral. Letting our minds wander and letting questions remain hanging, rather than simply looking up information on an app is what inspires us to think more deeply and to imagine. Whilst it can be rewarding to discover the name of a tree one has just seen or, see the eyes of a croc appear bigger than in real life using a croc cam, there is something special about unaided contemplation.