I grew up reading Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. Harold is four years old and uses a magic purple crayon to enhance his world simply by drawing what he desires and watching it spring to life. He draws a moon to light his way if he goes out walking at night. When he’s hungry he draws pies to eat. When he’s tired he draws a bed then curls up to sleep.

Today, an increasing majority of us come close to having a magic crayon in our pockets via our smartphones and tablet computers. By attaching cameras, GPS and tilt sensors onto our mobile devices, we can paint physical objects with digital media and information, tagging and leaving digital breadcrumbs for those who follow. Over the next decade, two-billion-plus people will join the Internet mainly through mobile devices, smart phones and tablets. As a result, no longer will the most valuable interactive activity revolve around connecting individuals to stored content. Instead, leading players in this new interactive model are turning to the “real-time” web, merging content, geographic and personal data resources accessible via mobile devices.

A recent example of a mobile application that instantly merges contextually sensitive information with a user’s location is the Warsaw Uprising app. The City of Warsaw worked with Netherlands-based Layar to create an augmented reality application that enables pedestrians to use their smartphones to visualize how Warsaw looked during the August–October 1944 uprising against the Nazis. To commemorate the uprising’s 67th anniversary, the Warsaw Uprising Museum used Layar’s augmented reality browser to link geographic points in today’s Warsaw with images of the war-ravaged
capital in 1944.

Other applications such as Wikitude by Mobilizy enable mobile users to leave comments, ratings, directions, links and other types of information connected to physical locations and objects. Take, for example, the Vancouver Aquarium: A mobile user can access a description, Yelp ratings, the aquarium website and related information all from one capture of the building by his or her smart phone camera.

New outdoor media technologies also give users the ability to interact with each other. An augmented reality browser by Germany-based Junaio lets users place objects, posts, Tweets, links and other digital collateral on captured images of physical objects and locations then share them on social networks like Facebook. The objects and messages users leave on physical locations (for example, the Golden Gate Bridge) are made discoverable by other people visiting the same place; users can make the information they leave public or accessible only to those in their social networks.

Beyond painting information and preferences onto physical locations and objects, people are using their mobile devices to signal their presence and preferences as well, a phenomenon that heralds a massive change in how communities organize for good. Take, for example, Conspiracy for Good, a combined social/web/mobile entertainment and advocacy experience created by Tim Kring, as well as the mobs of rioters in London during this past summer.

For professionals in architecture and spatial design, new mobile technologies offer special challenges and opportunities. Similar to how barcodes revolutionized how retail establishments organized and optimized their inventory, so do location and media technologies allow designers to rethink how people digitally interact with buildings and places. For example, new augmented reality technologies might enable disabled people to announce their presence to buildings, which in turn may call on resources (wider elevators, remote-controlled doors, wheelchair lifts, etc.) more efficiently. In terms of offering people information, guidance and offers, newer structures can be enabled to import user profiles and preferences to optimize what is available at that moment. Already in Japan, QR codes are being used in place of name badges to grant office building visitors preferential parking and other services. At the same time, the QR codes that enable visitors access to certain floors can also be used to restrict people from places to which they might ordinarily expect free entry.

For designers and their patrons, the next few years will bring the merging of physical space and digital information into sharper relief. Architects and spatial designers must now assume a public possessing the ability to paint the interior and exterior of their creations with digital information. Finding the right balance for using contextually filtered, location-based information is by no means an easy feat nor should it be entrusted wholesale to the plethora of companies scrambling to stake property rights to any and all information lashed to physical surroundings.