The Civil War Augmented Reality Project

The Civil War Augmented Reality Project was conceived by several public educators with technology experience and a desire to offer more interactivity to students and the general public visiting historic sites. The objective of the project is to develop and implement augmented reality services related to the American Civil War in Pennsylvania, and to modify soon to be released tablet personal computers to allow the general public a chance to experience the applications. The project’s inception is planned to give ample development time in the run up to the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, beginning in 2011. It is hoped that early support could generate interest in Maryland and Virginia. We also propose to construct stationary devices patterned after the “pay binoculars” often found at scenic overlooks. These devices will offer a virtual geographic view from a few hundred yards above the user. Physically swiveling the viewer left and right changes the direction of the view in real time, just as swiveling up and down changes the view. The intuitive nature of the device is intended to invite “non-tech oriented” persons to try the experience, and learn more about AR and the Civil War. We propose that these binoculars be set up at locations across the region touched by fighting in the war. In order to give the user a sense of the historical connections between each location, a nearby screen will project realtime webcam images of people using the devices at other locations.

This Augmented Reality application will allow users with iPhones and Android devices (digital compass required) to view the relative locations of points of interest when holding their device in any particular direction. It is also possible to view 3D models and images projected on the landscape, and possible to track the arrival of users in particular locations. This tracking is quite useful in creating interactive contests, and can also be used to give rewards to the user (coupons, images and models that can only be viewed after completing a task). If, for example, a user completes a task and is rewarded with the ability to view a 3D model, the user can snap a picture of the model with his or her device (even including his or herself in the picture). Users may also be able to unlock “secret” sites and collect images of them for bragging rights.

Everything described above is now possible, with development work. Layar and Junaio offer free applications for iPhone and Android devices that allow users to view points of interest in the real world using their phones, Layar itself have the ability to offer the “contest” or “scavenger hunt” activities to users. Foursquare and Gowalla offer free applications that allow users to “check-in” to locations for bragging rights and other rewards (i.e. a person who visits a coffee shop more than anyone else becomes the “mayor” of the shop, and receives free products).

The experience will surely improve in the near future. The advent of the iPad has driven tremendous public interest in tablet computers, but unfortunately, the iPad has no camera, a requirement for the AR experience. This shortfall by Apple is already leading to a mass development of tablet PC’s- driven by the chance to offer a better user experience and more capabilities than the iPad. This will be a boon for augmented reality in the near future, as the user experience will now take place on a much larger screen. This advance to more useful tablets will drive more interest in AR applications, but will also allow the ACWAR project to create portable AR devices to be rented to visitors to locations in PA, and to offer school children a chance to see Central Pennsylvania’s Civil War experience in a new, interactive, high interest way.

But what of the user who is unfamiliar with smartphones, tablets, or augmented reality?
The project proposes to construct stationary AR devices patterned after the “pay binoculars” often found at scenic overlooks. Rather than offering a view of the nearby scenery, the devices will offer a virtual geographic view from a few hundred yards above the user. Physically swiveling the viewer left and right changes the direction of the view in real time, just as swiveling up and down changes the view. The intuitive nature of the device is intended to invite “non-tech oriented” persons to try the experience, and learn more about the Civil War experience in PA. It is proposed that these stationary binoculars be set up at locations across the region, at major locations touched by fighting in the war: Greencastle, Mercersburg, Chambersburg, Shippensburg, Carlisle, Mechanicsburg, Harrisburg, York, Wrightsville, Columbia, Hanover, and Gettysburg. In order to give the user a sense of the historical and transportational interconnectedness of each location, a nearby screen will project realtime webcam images of people using the devices at other locations (audio communication also a possibility).

All of these applications will be linked to a central web hub, a place to offer information without the use of augmented reality. All of the 3D models (available in AR), information on the points of interest, and links to partner sites will be included. There will also be interactive maps showing the locations of points of interest, locations of the binoculars, etc.

These experiences are also intended to enhance educational experiences for young people, and offer challenges and rewards for both young and old. The AR experience is not inherently passive. Users can “check in” at specific sites just by standing at the site. These visits can be tracked. Rewards can be offered for visiting sites multiple times, sites can be ordered to promote users to visit sites in order (encouraging visits to sites across the region), and scavenger hunts can be constructed, giving clues for users to move from site to site, and even unlock “secret” sites.

ACWAR could also meld seamlessly with the Pennsylvania Civil War Trails initiative:

The Pennsylvania Tourism Office has teamed up with Google Earth, Carnegie Mellon University, the National Civil War Museum, and BarkleyREI to offer 3D tours of Pennsylvania’s Civil War historic sites on Google Earth.

This project involves the production of high-resolution gigapan images —short for Gigapixel Panoramas —that will allow virtual tourists, students, and historians to examine Pennsylvania’s Civil War sites in breathtaking detail. Gigapan technology combines thousands of digital images to create a panoramic image of more than one billion pixels so users can virtually enter, explore, zoom in on details of interest, and even go back in time to witness the change of seasons on a historic Civil War battlefield, enabling more of a sensory experience than was ever before possible via imagery on the web.

Whereas the present plan implements high-interest Google Earth tours and panoramic photos, ACWAR would integrate real-world interactivity, and bring the story of Pennsylvania’s Civil War off of the web and into the public, outdoor sphere.

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