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In Augmented Reality Film, Your Smartphone Solves the Crime

In “The Witness,” viewers become participants in a clever fusion of filmmaking and augmented reality.

In Augmented Reality Film, Your Smartphone Solves the Crime

Why does Europe get all the cool stuff? Here in America, all we get from SyFy are bad monster-movie mashups; but in Germany, SyFy (or rather, its parentborg, NBC Universal) mounts innovative original fare like “The Witness,” which blends gritty drama with immersive augmented reality. Forget the internet — they’re dubbing this “the first movie in the outernet.” “Imagine Greater” indeed.

“The Witness” works like a smartphone-centered fusion of a traditional thriller and an interactive ARG: German viewers applied to participate online, and the “winners” got to enter a real-life version of the movie in which they play a role, using their phones to watch snippets of the film that play out like a virtual layer over the physical scene they’re standing in.


For example, when the “film” begins in a Berlin hotel at the scene of a kidnapping, the player/viewer is literally standing in the same room where the scene took place, holding their phone up over it like a window to watch how it plays out — and then interact with it like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, as The Visual News explains.


You can either choose to solve the crime and save the day, or (intentionally or not) end up a red stain on the concrete. In this way “The Witness” may actually seem less detailed than the ultracomplex “transmedia” contrivances that movie studios use to promote their feature films these days — it almost sounds a bit like that old Don Bluth arcade game Dragon’s Lair, where the “gameplay” involved little more than choosing storypoints for the next cutscene. The difference is that “The Witness” actually is a film, not a game, so the design makes sense.

Either way, you can’t deny the visceral thrill of actually being in the action, as opposed to just choosing how it plays out. Maybe SyFy on our side of the pond could take a cue from “The Witness” and make an augmented reality version of Dinocroc vs Supergator? I’d sign up for that like it was my job.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.