Every year the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) hosts an exposition called DocLab, where audiences can explore the medium of documentary in the age of interactive story-telling free of charge. Part of a broad and diverse programme consisting of different virtual and augmented reality experiences, the augmented reality app “Pilgrim”, created by Lauren Hutchinson, lets the audience delve into the experience of pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.
I am brimming with anticipation as I put on glasses with integrated speakers and press ‘Start Pilgrimage’ on the smartphone that I was given by the IDFA Doc-Lab staff. As the phone screen flashes ‘Chapter 1’ and indicates the direction I should walk toward, I start to hear the voices of pilgrims through the speakers of my augmented-reality glasses. Walking through the crowded city centre of Amsterdam, I can actively decide with whom of the virtual pilgrims I want to spend time with. The accompanying pilgrims are male and female, old and young, from various different nationalities, and each single one of them has their own unique story to tell.
Each year, more than 200,000 people make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. While there are many different ‘Caminos’ all over Europe that vary significantly in terms of nature, hardship and popularity, they all have the same end destination. Each pilgrim finishes their journey at the shrine of St. James – one of Jesus’ twelve apostles – that is kept in the city’s cathedral. The pilgrims’ motivations can differ fundamentally, ranging from religion to the quest for personal progress. Despite the wide variety of individuals from all sorts of national and personal backgrounds, the way of St. James fosters an exceptional environment for open conversations, conditioned by the communal hardship of the walk itself. A unique atmosphere of listening, talking, reflecting, and sharing sets the tone amongst the pilgrims and welcomes anyone into the walking community.
Having had the unique privilege of soaking up this special atmosphere as a pilgrim myself while walking 800km through the Spanish mainland two years ago, ‘Pilgrim’ triggered heavy nostalgia and serendipity. The augmented reality app managed to successfully recreate the environment of a Mini-Camino in the heart of Amsterdam. The carefully crafted separation of the augmented experience through different chapters mirrored my own personal experience of Santiago. In the first chapters, one meets fellow pilgrims to talk about the simple daily struggles, including luggage, blisters, or the next coffee break. The further one advances on the pilgrimage, the stronger the bond between the pilgrims grow. You begin to experience deeper conversations as more people dare to open up with their deeply personal stories.
I may have been alongside the canals of Amsterdam, but listening to these virtual pilgrims made me temporarily forget the busyness of the city and focus on two things: walking and listening. The capability of technology to manufacture an experience that effortlessly detaches one from their actual surroundings and to become immersed in a virtual world is intimidating. During the thirty-minute experience, my attention for traffic or other people significantly decreased. As this type of technology advances rapidly, I wonder whether this unique and alternative perception of one’s environment will soon be indiscernible from everyday life. Although this experience unlocked a certain unease about the future, Pilgrim itself left a predominantly positive impression on me. The dive into augmented reality triggered an extraordinary feeling of aloneness in this bustling city. It felt almost peaceful to be shut off in a virtual world, away from the usual pressure to actively multitask or communicate with society. Taking the time to delve into augmented reality can give one a moment of self-reflection and contemplation. To that end, Pilgrim made me realize that the true essence of the Camino de Santiago is that one walks for the mere purpose of walking: hence the act of walking is not purely a means to an end but can be considered an end in itself.