Wolfwalk, the Blob and the Bleeding Edge Library

This is the second part of a two-part post on the development of augmented reality and the future of the information ecology around this new form of social web application. The first post can be found here.

A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to man the registration desk at the m-Libraries conference here in Vancouver, and as such I got to attend some sessions when I wasn’t working, and even got to sneak in to a couple when I was working, too.

One of the best or perhaps most promising sort-of “bleeding edge” presentations I saw there was a librarian from NC State, Tito Sierra, presenting on their library’s version of an Augmented Reality app, called WolfWalk. Essentially what Wolfwalk does is use the GPS in your iPhone (and, presumably if they make it past the pilot stage, any smartphone with GPS) to sense your location on campus, and show you images of landmarks nearby from NC State’s archival image holdings. Pretty neat, and definitely out in front of what I am familiar with in the academic library.

Wolfwalk isn’t technically Augmented Reality in the sense that it is based in Google Maps, and uses a custom-made map with landmarks coupled with the GPS, as opposed to exploiting the video camera to literally superimpose the archival images over the landscape. However, it is certainly an interesting way to tap into this technology through the library’s collections, and it an important step forward in that way.


The way I see it working is that with development of this new and pervasive technology arising quickly (Layar is here. Today.) it is more important than ever to encourage responsible and literate use of this data by information professionals and even passive consumers of the technology. It is fun, to be sure, but I am getting concerned that without any oversight by librarians and a field of people who are experts (or should be) in organizing and presenting information for public consumption, we will have just a big, technological mess set loose.

Take this Google Book settlement, for example. The metadata for it is bunk, and now we have a big, technological mess (almost) set loose.

But we’re sometimes interested in finding a book for reasons that have nothing to do with the information it contains, and for those purposes googling is not a very efficient way to search. If you’re looking for a particular edition of Leaves of Grass and simply punch in, “I contain multitudes,” that’s what you’ll get. For those purposes, you want to be able to come in via the book’s metadata, the same way you do if you’re trying to assemble all the French editions of Rousseau’s Social Contract published before 1800 or books of Victorian sermons that talk about profanity…

But to pose those questions, you need reliable metadata about dates and categories, which is why it’s so disappointing that the book search’s metadata are a train wreck: a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.


So perhaps there could be concern on sustaining emerging tech programs as libraries are forced to cut back on subscriptions and collections across the board these days, and I would imagine that in many institutions a program like Wolfwalk would be the first to get dropped. But the new literacies that a cutting-edge program creates and promotes for the staff who make it and the early adopters who use it, in my opinion, are very valuable as this uncertain and ill-defined technology begins to be set loose. After all, nothing can stop it.


2 thoughts on “Wolfwalk, the Blob and the Bleeding Edge Library

  1. Daniel
    I think your two-part post on augmented reality and blob-metadata illustrates an important contradiction all librarians are facing in an era of constant time pressures and technological innovation: that is, how awesome new ideas can seem but also terrifying at the same time.

    In other words, what does it all mean? We can augment the real through nifty phones and digitize books but is that what we need to preserve and provide access to the corpus of human knowledge?

    Technological determinism has its dangers. You’ll see this theme as we embark on the first weeks of LIBR559M – and I look forward to hearing what you think might be the best posture for librarians as we contend with everything that is happening.



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