Sunday, February 14, 2010

Augmented Reality and Cultural Heritage

I've just downloaded the Augumented Reality (AR) iphone app, "Wikitude" and am pondering the implications of this technology for the interpretation of cultural heritage. The app allows the user to view, either in Google Map form or through the camera viewfinder, icons linking to wikipedia entries for all points of interest in a specified radius of where the user is located. So from our place in West Concord, I can look towards the village center through the viewfinder and seeing a floating icon that I may click on, to access the wikipedia page about West Concord, listing its population and so forth. One may choose from a menu which 'worlds' one wants to see icons of (for instance, all Starbucks or Walmarts in the area, or all YouTube videos or Flikr photostreams associated with a given locale.) A comparable AR iphone app, "Nearest New York Subway" lets a person walking in NYC hold up their iphone and through the camera viewfinder see floating icons guiding them towards various subway stations. (so you would not need to consult a map, simply follow the icons to the station, assuming you didn't get run over crossing a street!) Other AR apps let one walk through a city street and through the camera viewfinder see icons leading you to restaurants, bars, night clubs, etc.

Note that this technology requires a smartphone etc that has an internal compass and GPS. This form of GPS only seems accurate within about twenty or thirty feet, so wouldn't be useful for navigation within a museum to specific exhibition cases, say, unless each case had embedded within it an identifying chip.

In any event, in Concord, one could imagine an Augmented Reality tour of particular historical points of interest. Approaching the Old North Bridge, one could look through the viewfinder to see floating icons linking to various websites of interest, giving historical information on the battle of April 19, 1775; images of historical engravings; the text of Emerson's "Concord Hymn"; the text (or a recorded audio version) of the relevant passage of Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere "
It was two by the village clock/When he came to the bridge in Concord town" (with perhaps another icon providing the footnote that Revere never made it quite that far!) ; photographs or videos of costumed reenactors; audio of the kind of fife and drums that might have been played at the battle, and so forth.

This would seem to solve one of the problems with outdoor cell phone based walking tour, that require the placement of signage listing the phone number to call, as well as listing which prompt to press ("Press 45# to hear Emerson's Concord Hymn"). Signs can disappear, and every time a new segment or prompt is recorded one would need to put up a new sign. Even if one has a printed brochure with a map and the telephone number and point of interest prompt numbers, that requires more concentration and initiative than many visitors are willing to invest. And a new pamphlet has to be produced each time a new segment is recorded for the tour.

But using AR all the user has to do is stand by the Old North Bridge, looking through the iphone or Android viewfinder and click on an icon to access the poem in written or aural form. The cell phone tour option could still exist, of course: I suppose that for smart phones one could simply have a floating icon of the cell tour telephone number to click on, and the phone would dial the number for you.

One problem would be filtering out all the internet noise, so that only historically credible assets would pop up on the screen. How would the user not be bombarded by all the misinformation on wikipedia, Flikr, YouTube, etc? Would this work by some sort of dedicated subscription service? There would need to be some way to geo-tag data bundles - so that when one looked west from the bridge towards the ride, one coud see a floating icon linking to information/images on where the Minuteman were advancing from.

Depending on how good the Image Search Function is, perhaps one could aim the viewfinder at the Obelisk (pictured above) and the system would identify it, and let one access historical information about it. This might include a selection, say, from Edward Linenthal's "Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields" on how the 1825 obelisk was later criticized for being on the wrong side (ie the British side) of the river, and that later on, in 1875, the Daniel Chester French statue of the Minuteman was therefore installed on the correct (ie. American) side of the river.

As always with mobile technologies, the challenge would be limiting the amount of text one needs to scroll through,and giving options for aural or video streaming that wasn't too long.

In any event, the possibilities do seem exciting for developing stimulating and informative outdoor historical and cultural tours through AR.

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