Seeing like a robot: augmented reality vision

As our vision is augmented by computerised technologies, will we start to see like robots? What would this mean?

What do robots see when they look at the world around them? In James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day we see the vision system of the terminator as it assesses its environment and the objects in its visual field with a visual overlay of computerised information and data analysis. Now, with the increasing proliferation of augmented reality applications on handheld devices like the iPhone and Google’s Android phones, “terminator vision” is becoming a common way of perceiving the world around us. These new prosthetic vision systems, such as Google Goggles and the augmented reality application layar, enhance human vision by adding extra layers of data and information to the visual field.

As humans and machines increasingly work together in extended cyborgian systems, it is important to understand the ways that computers ‘see’ and process visual information both so that we can improve computer vision systems and also so that we have a better understanding of their strengths and limitations. We must be cautious about seeing too close a cybernetic equivalence between computational and human processes. Human vision and cognitive processes operate in a very different ways to those of computer systems.

In augmenting human vision and decision-making processes, we need to make sure that we continue to value and use the full range of our human sensory and cognitive faculties. As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, our technological prostheses and ‘extensions’ are typically paired with a form of autoamputation. This paper argues that augmentation without atrophication must be the goal in our new augmented reality systems.


Kathy Cleland is a curator, writer and lecturer specialising in new media art and digital culture. She is Director of the Digital Cultures Program at The University of Sydney, an innovative cross-disciplinary program that critically investigates the social and cultural impacts of new digital media technologies. Her curatorial projects include the Cyber Cultures exhibition series which toured to over 20 venues in Australia and New Zealand from 2000 – 2003, the Mirror States exhibition (2008) at MIC Toi Rerehiko, Auckland, NZ and Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, and Face to Face: portraiture in a digital age for d/Lux/MediaArts, a digital portraiture exhibition currently touring Australia and Asia (2008-2011). Kathy is a founding member of a new research initiative set up by the Digital Cultures Program and the Social Robotics Centre in the Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, and her current area of research is the investigation of audience responses to robotic and screen-based entities