The possibilities of augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is a view of the real-world environment with elements that are augmented or layered over it, which could be pictures, sound, text or any number of digital additions. Some people call it “mediated reality,” which I like a little better. I think of it as Reality+. The best current example of AR is Pokémon Go, which layers an alternate world on top of the real world. Like in Pokemon Go, location is a major component in much of AR, having a place to attach the information, photo, or sound clip to.

Augmented reality often gets confused with virtual reality, which has the aim of recreating the real world in a digital realm. In their 2016 report, the Center for the Future of Museums classifies augmented and virtual realities as both the ‘promise and peril’ for museums in the near future. While I find many science and natural history and art museums using augmented reality, I didn’t find many instances of AR being used in history museums. The Natural History Museum, for instance, uses a skin and bone app that adds flesh to items in their collection, as seen below.


In The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander explains AR as being a spectrum of augmentation. At one side are simple (what he calls “Light AR”) geolocated photos or memories, like Open Durham that I talked about in a recent post, or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, mentioned by the author (164). These have bits of information or images attached to real places digitally. In the middle are simple superimposed visualizations, like an old map layered over Google maps. At the far end are full on visualizations imposed on the real world, like Pokemon Go.

Potentiality aside, getting people to USE the technology is another story. For a few walking tours I created in Durham we attached QR codes, a form of AR, to either the physical tour location hanging from a tree or fence, or on the brochure itself as a way of fitting in more information or photos that could fit on a small brochure. For both, we never had more than 4 or 5 people ever use the function. Yet, recently in the news I heard of a library in Europe that was using technology similar to Pokemon Go to hide books for people to search for, with astounding numbers of participants (Catch ‘em all! ) So, obviously, there is interest.But will it die out as Pokémon Go loses it’s appeal?

Another issue is how to make history engaging and, to an extent, game like or curiosity inducing, while retaining historical integrity. If used as a form of storytelling, how does AR allow history to come to life in stories? As Alexander asks in his first chapter, how does being digital, or in this case specifically being an augmented reality, enable new aspects of storytelling (14)?  I see the potentiality in my mind but haven’t encountered many instances in real life yet, although I’m sure they must exist. I could see AR being used like Pokémon Go to take visitors throughout a historic town to interact with different characters or people throughout history, much as Alexander imagines in Chapter 11.

I wanted to revisit History Pin. I had used it in the past but was disappointed with the lack of material/photos in many areas at the time, which was in its early test stages. I was surprised to hear that the app had partnered with the National Archives to add images. When I had visited in its Beta stages, the site seemed to be focused on buildings rather than stories. The focus has definitely changed. I was pleasantly surprised to see, in addition to a fuller stocked selection of old photos to overlay over the “real”, the site also prominently featured what appeared to be curated stories or collections.

I’m a World’s Fair junkie, so I examined specifically how History Pin was used to tell the story of the San Francisco World’s Fair. While there were thousands of photos uploaded to this group and pinned on a map, the associated information was often lacking or missing all together. Most images were uploaded by the public who had little information on the images. The same was true for many subjects that I searched. The visual component was there, and the ability to see what the past looked like in comparison to the present, but the information was primarily visual. There were little stories or context or tension created to go along with the pinned images.



There seemed to be many projects in the works, and many new apps and tools that promised support for institutions that wanted to get into AR and VR, but little consensus on any one company that seemed to be getting it right. Google is constantly experimenting with things like their Google Glass that alter the real world with overlaid data or images. Yet in the present, most AR seems to be location based photo based technology and did not dive too deeply into augmented reality. It seems on the horizon though.

After thought:

In a different class yesterday someone brought up the augmented reality lunch counter experience at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. This was new information to me and hadn’t showed up in my earlier searches. Users experience the sounds and physical abuse of the sit-in protestors as they sit on the stools with headphones on. I think that this is a superb way or telling a complex history using augmented reality and would’ve focused my blog on it if I knew about it earlier or had more time.


One thought on “The possibilities of augmented reality

  1. I like how you pulled in the lunch counter experience, isn’t it nice when classes relate? I’m curious what it was about that particular exhibit set-up though, that makes it so successful when you otherwise found that augmented reality exhibits/tools generally have mixed success. I wonder if it has anything to do with accessibility. For the lunch counter experience, visitors don’t need to bring anything to the exhibit – it’s all right there and they simply pick up the headphones and experience. With the Pokémon Go type experiences, or the QR codes (which I’ve also never had much success getting people to use) the visitor has to use their own device, ensure adequate internet access, etc.


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