I'm standing under a tree in Kensington Gardens, being swarmed by bats, their high-pitched squeaks all around me — it's like that scene out of Batman Begins. It's part of a new augmented reality (AR) app called The Deep Listener, designed to bring us closer to the natural world around us that we often don't notice.
Bats are nocturnal, so it's easy to forget that they exist in almost every London park. Thankfully none of London's bats are the vampire kind, though they do eat thousands of mosquitos and midges — and as I unfortunately know all too well, those insects are blood suckers, so the bats are welcome to hoover them up.
AR technology was made famous by Pokemon Go and while this app is also about experiencing creatures out in the wider world, it's a lot more meditative than most games, and thankfully nowhere near as addictive.
The app is triggered at five different locations throughout the park, each accompanied by poetry and stylised visuals to give it an immersive feel. Top tip: the sound is punchier when experienced wearing headphones. It's a quirky and often rather creepy experience — when the branches of a plane tree start to snake around me, I'm worried they may try and constrict me like a python.
The highlights are when the world seen through the app intersects with real life. It's fun to learn about the parakeets while watching their real life counterparts perched on the hands, heads and shoulders of park visitors who are feeding them fruit.
Things gets sinister up at the Italian Gardens with the introduction to 'mechanical killer swarms' of Azure Blue Damselflies. I always though they looked really pretty, not the 'beauties of death' that the app describes them as — though they must be a fearsome sight for their prey, and the app versions are a lot bigger than the ones we can see near the ponds. It's the best executed set of effects in the app, though we're not buying the description of them as an 'organic artificial intelligence' — that's surely an oxymoron.
It's an enjoyable, atmospheric prompt to slow down and appreciate the flora and fauna of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park — it beats an al desko lunch any day of the week. It's an innovative approach to using AR technology to help us engage with nature and it's a fun way to while away an afternoon in the sunshine.
The Deep Listener is by artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen. It's the Serpentine Augmented Architecture Commission in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Sir David Adjaye. It's free to download from the Android and iOS stores.