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Reality Check

So what could I possibly write about photographing Augmented Reality, covered in Episode 79 Advanced Training Methods? What even is there to photograph?

I was pretty much going to just give up trying to align photography with augmented reality when I came across my shoot from one of the trade shows I covered, the 2018 and the 2022 editions of the Farnborough International Airshow (FIA). Now this is an interesting event. It goes back over 70 years and those early events are an institution of aviation, of that there is no doubt. Back then, the Society of British Aerospace Constructors (SBAC) held bi-annual shows that enabled the heyday of aircraft manufacturing to boast its wares.

Just think of how much the world has changed since the stiff 1950s, the swinging 60s, the hip 1970s, the flashy 1980s, the racey 1990s and into the tech 2000s. Aviation in any genre has been at the forefront of any technological advancement, a barometer of human achievement if you will. A quick look at the number of manufacturers and the fleet listing of today’s skies versus the heady days of early expansion, and you’ll see that they’re a world away from each other.

The ‘Farnborough Airshow’ has had the best of it and, over the last few years, has seen its landscape changed dramatically. There’s just not the same amount of new aeroplanes to show off, and you don’t need to travel to rural Hampshire in little ol’ England to see them, learn about them, nor buy them.

Accordingly, the famous event’s flying display and the ‘new news’ waned. But the business side still kept strong, with multi-billion-dollar deals signed (or at least announced) in the exhibition halls and VIP chalets. Everything was shifting from the runway to the Hallways and from personnel hard-sell to personal hard drives.

What did this mean for the photographer and airshow-goer? Well, the actual airshow side of things became something of a misnomer, a cling onto the past. Forgivable yes, but also frustrating for the photographer and enthusiast AND the public alike, which wanted an ‘airshow’ in the truest sense, and indeed became very vocal when they didn’t get it. Having an inspirational, traditional, spectacle of an event in place for seven decades was not easily forgotten, and negativity was compounded by the new display regulations imposed after industry-wide safety reviews. As an airfield, Farnborough is in amongst some of the most densely complex airspaces (London Heathrow and Gatwick to name two), as well as large residential and township areas. So, even the bastion of normal display flying, such as The Red Arrows, were now unable to perform. The term ‘airshow’ suffered a slow death in this leafy part of England.

But – and it’s a MASSIVE but – that totally missed the point and brings me to my own point about future technology.

I have never, EVER shot an event as so fantastically inspiring and multi-faceted as FIA.

Being there for five days straight and shooting 12 hours a day (plus edit, post and delivery time) gave me a real insight that I felt most show-goers missed. I could see the super-keen people arriving and setting up their spot on the front of the crowdline and grabbing a grandstand seat and my heart sunk a little. Now in my view, that is also partly FIA’s faulty for calling it an ‘airshow’… They would leave disappointed. Yes, there was some good flying and unusual acts, but it felt half-hearted and disjointed. Random, even. But this isn’t a show review… For unless you stepped away from the airshow mentality and physically walked around the exhibition stands, the halls, the static aircraft, you would seriously miss out… And that is not all you would miss.

If you chose to remove the reality from what you thought an airshow was, you could experience something of an immersion in technology and experience that befitted the description of educational expo, rather than airshow. In just one day, you could meet an astronaut, learn the European space programmes, take part in Royal Air Force challenges, sit in AH-64 Apache gunship, talk to super-cool F-15E Strike Eagle pilots, sit down with WW2 veterans, stop to watch a Spanish Navy Harrier in the deafening hover above you, listen to classic warbirds rumbling through the heavens, have a go at solving complex engineering problems, sit in a British Airways flight simulator, get blasted by a flying anti-gravity suit, try and keep up with the Red Bull Air Race, sit in the cabin of a brand-new Airbus A380 giant airliner, watch the Red Arrows pilots launch their jets at close-quarters, touch and learn the skills of warbird restoration, get hands on with Lockheed Martin’s newest designs, enter the super high-tech world of Boeing, and try the latest fighter technology in BAE Systems, learn an entirely new eVTOL industry. Endless.

That’s one hell of a day out. These highlights blew me away and I was the inspiration for this Photo Brief musing. As a photographer, you could try to make sure that you are showing the best of the event, finding the real story, the flavour of the event, and not just following the crowds. There’s always another angle, always another viewpoint – you do not have to stand on the crowdline and shoot with a telezoom, just to come away with the same images that thousands of others committed to memory cards. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend NOT getting the shots from show center or from the corners of the crowdline for those photo-passes. No way, they’re cool! But just maybe take some time to head away and see what else is happening. You won’t be disappointed.

That leads me to what I saw in the tech displays at FIA, and particularly in BAE Systems. I recall the day that the manufacturer had announced its next generation fighter aircraft, the Tempest. Inside the central area of the exhibition chalet was a full-size mock-up of the jet, with a multitude of cockpits and screen set-ups all around the edge… And all around were children and young adults totally and utterly engrossed in the entire spectrum of future technology.

A full-size mock-up of the BAE Systems Tempest jet, with a young child absorbing & dreaming...

I watched as young lads and lasses climbed in and out of the Tempest cockpit, truly inspired and grinning from ear-to-ear, before then flying a mission in the type on a virtual reality sim. They were living it.

It was actually quite breath-taking. Here were the generation of PlayStation and Xbox players, totally at home with putting on a Virtual Reality headset and flying a fighter.

They were operating the radar with a flick of a finger in mid-air. The VR headseat showed their hands on the projected screen rattling through the radar’s menu system. They’d choose weapons with the swipe of a hand. Their brains were already there, completely at home with the augmented reality. They were literally at one with the aircraft in a very natural, intuitive immersion of war-fighting tech.

I am absolutely convinced that I saw future frontline fighter pilots that day, whom had climbed into a mock-up Tempest, put on a VR headset and operated a radar, weapons system and flight control system as a young person in shorts and t-shirts and baseball cap, ready to wear the uniform, speed jeans and helmet for real in a few short years.

This was their ‘moment’, birthed by the Virtual Reality that they had adopted, and made possible by not going to an airshow…

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