Chris Harris wants to get rid of all the cars, so he started designing an augmented reality app where they don’t exist. Harris tweeted a short clip on Monday which shows him walking past a row of cars and trucks on the road that seem to be blinking in and out of existence. There’s a truck — now it’s gone. Same goes for a motorcyclist. He points his phone at a passing window, and the reflections of the vehicles lined up behind him begin to flicker and morph as well.
It’s hallucinatory, glitchy, and raw, but you can see what he’s going for: a world without cars.
“The pollution, the obstacles,” he said in an email to The Verge, “but most of all for me personally, as someone who is highly sensitive, it’s the cacophony of sounds and jarring relentlessness of a constant flow of traffic that I would love to avoid.”
Harris isn’t some big city dweller bemoaning the rise in traffic congestion; the software developer lives on the tiny island of Gibraltar off the Spanish coast, population 34,571. He thought he’d escaped the noise and the pollution of his native England, but instead he found himself in a country with one of the highest levels of per capita car ownership in the world, where there are as many motor vehicles as people.
Harris knew he couldn’t change the current reality, so he used his skills in coding and artificial intelligence to try to imagine a better world — one not filled with millions of two-ton metal death machines belching carbon emissions.
He adapted code from two open-source repositories on GitHub: one for vehicle detection that’s common in the neural nets used by self-driving cars; the other from a recent paper called “Globally and Locally Consistent Image Completion.” Using an AI model trained on the “Places2” dataset by MIT, his aim was to replace the cars with images of outdoor places.
“I had this idea for a while,” Harris said. He said he was becoming increasingly distraught by the amount of trucks and cars on the road, so he tried to imagine them away — roads becoming expanses of grass or flowing rivers, passing cars becoming birds, or crumbling pavements becoming mountain trails. “It kinda worked if I concentrated hard enough,” Harris said.
But it wasn’t enough to just imagine, so he decided to leverage his coding skills to build a standalone augmented reality app that alters the cityscape to be more environmentally friendly, while still allowing for safe navigation. That meant replacing cars with something less “obnoxious,” like a flowing river or a flock of birds.
He said he takes inspiration from the concept of “Biophilia,” which means “a love of life or living systems.” The term was popularized by American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, who defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”
“I thought if the hardware advancements became common place enough, perhaps this imagined biophillic world could be something I could make for myself and others too,” Harris said. “But I originally dismissed that, though, as not actually contributing to the overall good of the physical world we do inhabit.”
Harris picked the project back up after seeing a tweet from climate advocate Christine Larivière, where she suggested using the tools of AI to encourage the change we want to see in the world. That was all the inspiration he needed.
Wanted: An augmented reality app that layers a sustainable city over our own e.g. heavy urban greening, increased cycling infrastructure, solar panels, INSECTS.
— Christine Larivière (@cdlariviere) April 16, 2019
Harris said it’s possible to improve the quality of the neural net with better hardware, which he currently lacks. Right now, it works at about 1 frame-per-second on high-end hardware, but he believes it could work in real time using dedicated GPU/TPU hardware or with adjustments and training for the specific capture and image size.
The challenge is to change the real world as much as we change our virtual world, Harris said. To that end, if his experiment were to grow into the more elaborate AR app, Harris said he would like proceeds to go towards improving the real world location it’s used in, or some other means of a positive feedback loop. He hasn’t thought the whole thing through.
“Despite the unfinished nature of the result, I think it showcases the struggle quite well,” he said. “The struggle that we all face to try and make our environment more hospitable to life.”