A visionary at play: How Augmented Reality designer Christian Enriquez, in partnership with Snap and ESAW, is reimagining public art
by Mark McDermott
A visitor to El Segundo’s Experimentally Structured Museum of Art could understandably have been stunned last November when snow started falling inside the main gallery. Then, suddenly, railroad tracks appeared, and a familiar little black train pulled into the museum. Somehow, as if by magic, reality was at play.
The Polar Express had arrived, courtesy of a man with a black goatee and mischievous, but impishly joyful grin standing inconspicuously among other visitors, some who were likewise surprised to find themselves holding lightsabers or looking up at the towering, extraterrestrial Tree of Souls, which had sprouted up in the middle of the museum.
That mysterious man, Christian Enriquez, has a word for what those around him were experiencing. He calls it “amplified” reality, and in this case, he had an already altered reality with which to work – the work of Hollywood production designer Rick Carter, famed for the worlds he created for Star Wars, Avatar, and The Polar Express, among others. The more technical term for what Enriquez does is Augmented Reality, or AR, and in the emerging field of AR designers, he’s a rising star.
“He’s like a Jedi Master,” said John McCullough, event producer for the El Segundo Art Walk. “His creativity and expertise – I mean, he’s a master of craft. He knows exactly what is possible, and how to get it done.”
McCullough met Enriquez at ESMoA, where the AR designer was an artist in residence, at a holiday gathering last December. McCullough had more than a passing interest in AR. In fact, last year, ESAW featured an internationally acclaimed Augmented Reality art sculpture called “Keeping Time” by digital artist and educator Casey Farina, which was viewable at Art Walk headquarters near City Hall. ESAW attendees simply held their phones up to see and hear large, floating, chiming bells hovering at eye level outside City Hall, small objects orbiting the bells, and the trails of those orbits extending into the sky above.
Enriquez told McCullough he had a larger vision for El Segundo than a single sculpture or art show.
“I want to make El Segundo an AR city,” he said.
“That’s a broad statement,” McCullough replied. “What do you mean by that?”
Thus began a conversation that has by now gone on for nine months, the initial fruits of which will come to life this Saturday, when the 2023 El Segundo Art Walk takes place. ESAW will unveil an AR map (available on any phone, see QR code at the end of this article) and an AR installation (at City Hall plaza) featuring 12 pieces of public art around El Segundo, two of which will be “amplified” by Enriquez – the “Moving Forward” mural painted last year by Andrew Hem that takes up an entire outside wall at Labib & Funk Associates at 312 Main Street, and “The Fox” mural painted by Bunnie Reiss two years ago on Sweet Spot Media’s wall at 219 W Grand Avenue.
Both murals were commissioned by ESAW, which utilized the City of El Segundo’s “one percent for the arts” program to bring lasting, large-scale public art, thus extending the Art Walk’s presence beyond the single day it occurs each August. But this year, when ESAW organizers contemplated a third new mural, they faced a couple of problems.
“You know, there’s not always just a blank wall that pops up and a business owner who says, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want on the side of it,’” said George Renfro, ESAW’s creative director. “So we were sort of like, what else can we do?”
Perhaps more significantly, Renfro and McCullough – both El Segundo residents who took the reins of ESAW eight years ago and grew it from its grassroots origins into a sprawling, beloved, yet cutting-edge local institution – weren’t convinced that many people were actually seeing the murals they commissioned, much less any of other public art tucked away in locations throughout the five square miles of the city.
Even if you build it, it turns out, they don’t always come.
“We’d been talking about trying to solve this problem of all the public art in the city that nobody knows about,” McCullough said. “I mean, the Art Walk worked our tails off and we got two new murals installed in the city, and there was no platform for the public to discover it. So we didn’t want to do another public art installation until we came up with a plan to share these works with the public, to make public art discoverable.”
Enter Enriquez, who when he met McCullough offered one word that instantly broadened the possibilities for what public art could be in El Segundo.
He said, “Snap.”
Christian Enriquez took a circuitous path into the world of high tech. He had many things to discover, it turned out, before he was ready to amplify reality.
His journey in some sense began at Trader Joe’s, where he began as an employee during his teenage years through his 20s. He’d loved drawing since he was a kid, and at Trader Joe’s made an interesting discovery – the art that employees were asked to make in order to give the stores more color and playfulness also made customers happier, and translated into higher sales.
“Having worked at Trader Joe’s for many years, I loved all the autonomy they have given us when it comes to making the customer experience better,” Enriquez said. “Whether it comes to creating really cool artwork that will captivate people, to moving products around for an easier shopping experience, we are encouraged to think for ourselves and do the right thing. No bureaucracy.”
Enriquez also devised ways to reduce the squishing of products in customers’ carts. He wouldn’t realize it until later, but he was learning what in the tech world are called “UX”, or “user experience” skills. He would eventually attend Santa Monica College, where his focus was on just that – technically, his degree was in Interaction Design, but this was all about UX.
“I graduated in user experience,” he said. “So my whole focus was like, ‘How can we make things intuitive and easy to use for people of all ages to have an immersive experience, or just better any type of product?”
Enriquez is an avid and voracious learner. He possesses an outsized sense of curiosity, which is both a gift and sometimes a curse.
“In school, I was definitely one of those worst-case scenarios that people feared becoming. A student who has absolutely no idea which focus you want to go towards, so you go towards all of them,” he said. “Everything from the production pipeline movie industry, to the tech side of IT and coding. But discovering the Interaction Experience Design (IXD) program at Santa Monica college helped me focus on what I’ve been doing my whole life without knowing it.”
“Students were forced to stay indoors and away from in-person events,” Enriquez recalled. “Depression due to isolation skyrocketed, myself included. But instead of sulking in my misery, Di and I decided to help bring people together during this time of need.”
They used the video, voice, and text and a group chat app called Discord to create a community within the college. Such chats are often used to share information and funny memes, but they had a different intention.
“How can we create an environment that promotes community and closeness in a world where you had to remain six feet apart?” they asked themselves.
“We decided to host weekly virtual movie nights, play virtual Jack Box Games together. We even had ‘Drink and Draw’ nights, where we each grab a beverage of choice and paint a video of Bob Ross, as his soothing voice helps us turn all our problems into beautiful birds,” Enriquez said. “This was very successful. All of the students and even school faculty were promoting our server.”
As the pandemic receded and graduation approached last year, Enriquez was a little concerned that he had a lot of different skills but no exact focus for the job market. His friend Di had a suggestion – that he apply to the Snap Lens Academy, which is essentially a cutting-edge Augmented Reality program.
“I was not interested mainly due to the slim chances of getting in because they only accept 15 scholars a year,” Enriquez said. “I also did not know too much about creating AR experiences. But Di felt compelled to convince me, due to how she and I came together during the pandemic.”
Snap Inc., better known as Snapchat, is one of the global leaders in AR. The Snap Lens Academy searches for community college students who have followed unconventional paths and displayed unusual promise. It is meant to help inspire future creators of AR worlds.
Enriquez was admitted. Almost immediately, everything he’d been studying for the last 15 years snapped into place. He hadn’t realized it, but he’d been preparing himself for exactly this – amplifying reality.
“When I got into Augmented Reality, I was just like, ‘This is perfect,’” he said. “I mean, it’s like you’ve almost opened up a fourth dimension to everything. I started thinking about all the amazing ways you can use this – as a utility, as a tool – for so many things.”
A lens is a filter that augments reality as seen through your phone and its camera. Sometimes a lens simply does goofy things, like altering your face to give you a snout or rabbit ears. Sometimes it places you in its own little world. Enriquez created a lens for Snap that did just this – it is called Safe Space, and it was simply intended to bring people together in a peaceful little place with trees and birds, and a simple piano playing while above your head appears the word “You’re” followed by the words “kind”, “powerful”, “wonderful” and “loved.” You can enter this world alone, or with your Snapchat friends. “1 in 6 youth has suffered from at least one major depressive episode in the last year,” the first screen says, as you enter this world. “We’d like to improve mental health by giving you a space to connect.”
This and other lenses Enriquez created in the academy drew the attention of the folks from Snap. What they saw in him, however, wasn’t just his technical adeptness, but something perhaps more crucial. He wanted to use what he was learning to do good in the world.
“It’s the positive light I think we all need, and it’s just amazing to see that,” said Lindsey Heisser, manager of global philanthropy at Snap, Inc. “And he’s able to do that through his own art, through his own version of AR art.”
Heisser said that Enriquez is the living embodiment of exactly what the academy is intended to do.
“Really his spirit and leadership was there from the get-go,” Heisser said. “I think that that’s just the young man that he is…he has the curiosity to explore the tools that are available, and see what is possible and to ask questions. Because during the academy, it’s not just learning the software. All the scholars have the opportunity to connect with all of our executives across Snapchat, and they have the opportunity to do different workshops, to work with mentors, and a myriad of different ways to engage in these immersive programs. Christian took every opportunity to jump in and say, ‘I want to learn this. I want to create these connections.’”
The Snap Academy connected Enriquez to ESMoA, and just like that, he found himself working side by side with Rick Carter, one of the most prolific movie production designers in the world.
Eva Sweeney, managing director, and co-founder of ESMoA, said Carter was astonished by what Enriquez did with his work.
“Rick discussed with him what could be interesting, and then he was totally blown away with what Christian came up with,” Sweeney said. “So it’s a really fascinating, new kind of art. You know, you have oil on canvas, you have photography, and Augmented Reality – it’s like another type of material you can use to show art. What was really cool is that Christian used the platform Snap. Because all the kids have Snap, everybody has Snap, so it made it much easier and more accessible to actually play with these artworks.”
Enriquez lives in El Segundo. The city itself, and ESAW, have long been subjects of his admiration. And so when he and McCullough began their conversation, a shared vision emerged, one in which the entire city becomes a canvas for Augmented Reality, beginning with this year’s Art Walk.
“Our vibe started valving together,” Enriquez said. “And honestly, we were like, ‘You know what? We’re both heading in the right direction. Let’s partner up. Let’s do this, let’s go on this adventure together.’ We started combining our strengths and came up with a plan to amplify the Art Walk. And again, this is still the very beginning of what we would like to do.”
El Segundo has long been a city that punches above its weight class. From its aerospace roots onwards, the city has fostered big ideas and unconventional thinkers. Something different seems to pervade in the little city tucked in between industry and the ocean. And though it’s not exactly an innovation, what other city of 16,000 is home to both NBA and NHL championship franchises, the Lakers and the Kings?
Mayor Drew Boyles believes his city is the right place for an emerging technology like Augmented Reality to fully take flight.
“I’ve been saying ad nauseam the last few years that we are the most important five square miles in California,” said Mayor Drew Boyles. “And we have so many data points to prove it. So to me, this fits. We’re always innovating in El Segundo, from [the creation of] GPS, toys, sports, e-sports, food production – it doesn’t matter what the industry is, this is the home for innovation. So this is the perfect place for AR innovation to happen, as well. It’s a really strong, vibrant town that has been overlooked for a long time, like a diamond in the rough.”
Other cities and organizations have engaged AR to enhance public art, perhaps most famously the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2020 the museum launched a five-year, $250 million project in partnership with Snapchat called “Monumental Perspectives” which utilizes AR to highlight art and history throughout the city of LA. ESAW’s project is admittedly smaller in scope, but not in ambition. It will begin with a mere $30,000 price tag.
McCullough believes ESAW’s use of AR is the start of something much larger. It begins with solving the problem of public art “discoverability” in El Segundo, but opens up to much broader, as yet barely imagined possibilities.
“Last year, we started asking, ‘What is the next step?’” he said. “How do we take El Segundo to the forefront of art? What big ideas can do that?”
When Enriquez told McCullough his vision was to make El Segundo an AR city, it seemed plausible, simply because big things happen in El Segundo. AR is a difficult concept to explain in words, as McCullough would discover in pitching the ESAW AR project to city leaders. It’s a “show don’t tell” kind of thing. What will be shown at this year’s art walk will be only a glimpse of what Enriquez is imagining for the future of El Segundo.
His intention is to bring the murals to life. The AR lens for “The Fox” mural by Bunnie Reiss, for example, will amplify an already fantastical scene.
“But what if you could not only jump inside the world of ‘The Fox,’ but have the world of ‘The Fox’ leak out into ours?” Enriquez said. “That’s exactly what we wanted to accomplish when it came to the augmented reality experience. We heard a story about how during the pandemic, there were a lot of sightings of foxes roaming the beaches. And we wanted to help recreate something similar. As you approach and point towards the mural, the fox comes to life and begins running as a 3D representation of it, comes out of the mural and relaxes right next to you. You can enjoy the beautiful fluffy clouds and plants that come out, Or even stare at the El Segundo butterfly that seems to have an interest in the fox.“
What is this a glimpse of, in terms of creating an AR city? Enriquez said that AR can be applied to almost every public space in El Segundo.
“Imagine going into a store, and then upon seeing what they have and noticing that, ‘Hey, we can show you what else we have to offer.’ And then the shelf is restocked, magically, with all the other stuff that they don’t have space for, and you can keep flipping through it.”
“Imagine you are going to a park,” he continued. “All of a sudden, there is a magical trail that appears telling you where one of your friends is, who happens to be nearby.”
“Imagine being able to walk into a museum, and all of the past exhibitions that you wish you could have come to but missed – you’re now able to experience. You’re able to walk through those exhibitions.”
Enriquez emphasizes that he’s not talking about some distant future.
“Everything I am describing is literally what we are capable of achieving now,” he said.
Enriquez, who has started his own company, called Reality Experience Design, said his intention is to create AR uses that aren’t just about a product or a cool trick. Safe Space, the lens he created in the Snap academy, was an example – unlike so much technology that isolates, he believes AR can actually bring people together.
“I do want to utilize this technology as a tool, not just a type of entertainment,” he said. “I want to create stuff that can really help people, like the experience with that Safe Space.”
Renfro believes that Enriquez is exactly the right person at the right time and place.
McCullough praised the city for embracing a project few could understand.
“AR is still a very new thing,” he said. “The City of El Segundo took a chance on the Art Walk. The City trusted that we would guide this somewhat risky project to completion. The ‘Big Ideas Start Here’ motto is real. And the results are real.”
All Enriquez can see are endless possibilities.
“We currently live in such a wonderful age where art, technology, and the physical world around us can merge together as one. With limitless possibilities of integrating AR into our everyday lives, if you can imagine it, we can create it. So in a way, I almost feel like we are similar to sorcerers or conjurers. Or as I started to call ourselves, ‘Reality Designers.’ Because we are able to bring things into existence around us. This technology is definitely here to stay, and you can tell by how many companies out there are now building augmented reality glasses. Once the price is feasible and hardware is more advanced to keep up…it’s not long before every destination you arrive to, has an AR experience.”
He is fond of quoting the novelist William Gibson. “The future is already here,” Gibson wrote. “It’s just not evenly distributed.”
The El Segundo Art Walk takes place Saturday, August 26, from 3 to 9 p.m., throughout the downtown and Smoky Hollow districts. See ElSegundoArtWalk.com for more information, and scan the attached QR code for the AR map once you are on site.