Augmented reality is a familiar technology that has been creating new spatial experiences for many years now. To inform an AR project that I’ve been undertaking recently for Calvium’s Place Experience Platform, I decided to find out a bit more about augmented reality…
While early innovations in immersive reality were emerging just as The Beatles started rising to fame – the first VR mounted headset was developed in 1960 – it was undoubtedly Pokemon Go that took AR to the mainstream in 2016, carving out a lucrative space for AR as an entertainment experience.
AR has come a long way in the past decade alone, with increasingly sophisticated technology driving innovation to enable more immersive experiences and a greater connection to places. Whether for entertainment or education purposes, AR is being adopted by many to enhance storytelling – in journalism, theatre, museums, towns and cities. My particular interest lies in the ways that AR is being used to form new experiences for people in places, and a variety of examples follow.
The world’s first augmented reality city
Stirling in Scotland is currently undergoing a £200,000 transformation to become the first fully augmented reality city in the world. Part of the Scottish government’s Place Based Investment Programme, Stirling Council has teamed up with BT and global design agency Seymourpowell to bring the city’s history and heritage to life in a new AR environment.
The place-based app, dubbed Stirling XP, overlays key attractions with interactive information, graphics and 3D models, while interactive games will unlock rewards and incentives across the city. It is part of a wider ambition to raise Stirling’s profile on the international stage – particularly by tapping into the expectations of a younger generation looking for more immersive and digital experiences. Another key aim is to open up new opportunities for local businesses and boost the wider tourism economy.
We know that digital placemaking has become a key component of the visitor experience and has the potential to realise socio-economic benefits for a location. Neil Christison, VisitScotland’s regional director notes: “…tourism is a force for good with an impact that spreads far beyond the industry itself – it benefits our economy, our community and our wellbeing.” As a central pillar of place-based digital capabilities, investment in augmented reality can be an investment in the local economy.
Bringing history to life
AR is not only a powerful way to bring modern-day cities to life, it also has a great role to play in recreating places of the past. Zubr Curio’s Acropolis AR app, for example, allows visitors to the Acropolis of Athens to explore the ancient buildings as they would have appeared in the 5th Century, and walk the paths that connect them. The app is not only location specific, but also lets people enjoy the experience wherever they are in the world. By bringing a miniature 3D model of the Acropolis Hill to their living rooms, users can inspect the ruins as they appear today and reconstruct the monuments in AR, piece by piece.
The New York Times has used AR to recreate history in a slightly different way. As part of its experimentation with AR in storytelling and journalism, the publisher used photogrammetry – the process of taking overlapping photos of an object, structure or space and converting them into 3D digital models – to recreate a model of an historic Chinatown street in New York. Using over 4,000 images, users can explore archival photos of that space through the lens of AR – including a famous vintage dim sum parlour dating back to 1920.
Back in 2019, Calvium collaborated with Professor Fabrizio Nevola at the University of Exeter, Professor Donal Cooper at the University of Cambridge, the National Gallery and long-term partners Zubr to create Hidden Florence 3D: San Pier Maggiore. Using AR, the app places the user inside a reconstructed model of the Church at San Pier Maggiore in Florence that was destroyed in the 18th Century, and recreates the building around the altarpiece, which is currently situated in the National Gallery.
Adding a new dimension to fiction
Audio has been an incredibly popular extension of fiction for decades, with the first audiobooks dating back to the 1930s. So it makes sense that AR is being used to add another dimension to fiction and storytelling, creating immersive experiences that pique the imagination of both adults and children alike.
For example, Singapore’s Mint Museum of Toys’ series of AR story-colouring books for 4-12-year-olds encourages learning through interaction and creativity. Each book is based on collections from the museum, including one about a girl who grew up in 1920s Singapore, which tells a story of how this nation-state has progressed since then.
The University of York, meanwhile, has developed an immersive AR pop-up book to bring the story of Dracula to life. The 20-minute experience combines a ‘real world’ fine art pop-up book with immersive AR animations, with a tablet dressed as a ‘spirit detector’ inviting audience members to become part of Dracula’s reincarnation. The project hopes to eventually enable the development and testing of a location-based version that can be toured internationally.
Even closer to Calvium HQ in Bristol, Aardman Studios has created its first AR experience for Wallace and Gromit. The narrative-driven experience sees the world-famous duo take on a contract to ‘Fix Up’ Bristol and positions the player as a new employee of the company. They can interact in a variety of ways, including through AR gameplay and extended reality portals.
Fictioneers’ Richard Saggers, who worked on the project with Aardman, described it as groundbreaking work “which demonstrates the huge opportunity to evolve the way stories are told.” Saggers highlights the importance of having diverse, multidisciplinary teams, which is something Calvium certainly advocates for too!
The immersive nature of theatre means it is already very well-positioned to experiment with AR. The National Theatre spotted the opportunity early on and launched its own immersive storytelling studio back in 2016. The studio is designed to examine how emerging technologies such as AR can widen and enhance the company’s remit to be a “pioneer of dramatic storytelling and to enable an audience to stand in the shoes of another”.
One studio output includes a live AR performance of All Kinds of Limbo; people can buy a £6 ticket and watch it on their smartphone or tablet, wherever they are. This demonstrates the power of AR to make theatre more accessible too.
Professor Elizabeth Hunter’s theatre productions, meanwhile, use video games and AR headsets to place audience members in the perspective of a play’s characters. Bitter Wind: Greek Tragedy for Hololens, for example, puts users in the POV of the protagonist by overlaying their physical surroundings with digitally rendered versions of palace windows, torches and wall fragments.
Place Experience Platform evolution
Calvium’s Place Experience Platform (PEP), that I mentioned earlier on, is one tool that can give place managers the capability to put AR elements in a location, and then manage, update and expand on them. We are constantly looking to improve capabilities and expand our menu of experiences from which place managers can choose their feast!
We recognise the value of making AR scalable and accessible to everyone using our platform, which is why I am currently designing new elements that will be made available to all of the PEP customers.
Windmill Hill City Farm
To coincide with Halloween, we recently co-designed a new digital visitor experience for Windmill Hill City Farm. The 15-minute trail follows Dusty the ghost, who appears as an animated AR model and needs help finding their friends around the farm. We’ve created five fixed templates of different ghosts in the CMS, which can be customised to create individual trails and challenges around different sites.
Starting with an initial set of characters, each place can create their own site-specific experience from a ready-to-go toolbox. for personalising to their place. We see a huge opportunity to create more seasonal trails like this, including for Easter, Christmas and major peek holiday times. Moving forward, developments like this will be available to all clients as part of their subscription.
A more complex, unique and bespoke project, our latest collaboration with Zubr is an example of a more complex, unique and bespoke project, which uses mixed media storytelling to enhance the historic site of Beckford’s Tower in Bath.
As this project was built using PEP, the curatorial team can continue to develop it once the project is over. There are so many stories to be told, which means place managers can produce and release new content over time; they can get user feedback, make changes, tie in releases with themed promotions and regional events. It’s a quick, cheap and easy way to update and keep visitor experiences fresh and relevant.
As I’ve discovered, AR is no longer a novel and risky innovation; it is a must-have way to engage. In the context of place-based storytelling, AR can help draw out what is distinctive about your place. It can further enhance the craft, creativity and quality of storytelling, and deepen understanding of the unique local aspects of a place. AR as a technology is a common offer, but how you use it to lead people around your place and tune it into your particular context is what will make you stand out.
People expect a digital element to their place experience nowadays, and so a digital component, AR or otherwise, should be seen as a staple part of any placemaker’s toolkit. Not only do audiences enjoy digital experiences, it is a tried-and-tested way to boost engagement with a place, support a place’s brand and encourage repeat visits. A win-win for all!