Can Augmented Reality Tell Environmental History? In the winter term 2012, funded by a grant from NiCHE, 10 MA students in public history at Carleton University began exploring augmented reality (AR) for telling environmental history. The project was in conjunction with Joanna Dean and Will Knight’s project and exhibition at the Bytown Museum in Ottawa, ‘Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest‘. What follows is culled from students’ reflections on the experience.
The students were asked to explore a number of different AR platforms, from a very pragmatic viewpoint. None of the students had ever before worked with AR or engaged with digital history in any great depth. I asked the students to assess how easy it would be for local groups or small museums, operating on very tight budgets and run by people with potentially limited technical abilities, to create their own history-oriented app using AR. We did not code any of these applications from scratch; rather, much like using Word to write an article, we used authoring platforms to translate environmental history onto a smartphone. How creator-friendly are the platforms? In addition, what are the practical benefits and limitations of AR in a museum or environmental setting? What are the theoretical implications for telling or creating environmental history in this way? After much exploration, the students settled on three different applications: Juanio, 7Scenes, and Hoppala. They set about creating applications that told the environmental history of the urban forest on the slopes of Parliament Hill.
The students found that these tools were not particularly straightforward to use, and that their many restrictions and limitations had a considerable impact on the way in which they were able to tell the history of this area. On the plus side, the basic functions of these platforms could indeed be employed by small museums to develop their own AR app. For the more advanced features of the platform, which could allow for more creative, comprehensive and engaging historical representations, a museum must weigh the time, effort, and skill level required to use them, against the benefits of the final product in the short-term. Sometimes, students found it difficult to conceive of an AR application that was not a straight-forward translation of tried and true public history and museology paradigms and narratives, especially when designed around a particular museum exhibit.
On the surface, augmented reality platforms and locative computing – tying digital information to the actual physical space that it is about – seem to be perfect tools for environmental history to create a more interactive and experiential presentation of the past. However the intent and design of the platforms works against this. Its genesis in advertising weighed heavily on the students’ minds, as this seemed to affect how information could be integrated with the environment. Stuart Eve, an archaeology PhD student at University College London suggests that historians’ use of AR technology will only be able to escape this “trench of disillusionment” once it can be used intelligently and cheaply and most importantly once the technology is wrestled away from advertisers. Scholars and museum staff need to remember that the metaphors, logic and intent of the computer designers who have created the digital tools do not always fit the humanities. Ultimately, the students were not sure whether it is possible at this time to use this marketing technology to present an effective historical narrative. One can certainly be told; but whether it is the best narrative is another matter.
Nevertheless, the students ended the project on an optimistic note. They were able to write environmental history in physical space using AR and smartphones, even if they had some misgivings about the kind of history or narrative that they presented. Some drew attention to recent work by Brian Greenspan who suggests we use the mobility of reading to change the traditional forms of how we present narratives. He looks at e-books and readers and suggests that this can change the way we understand how we relate to space in novels by moving around and not imagining space as a solitary process. This could be effectively translated as the narrative model for historical and heritage AR apps. Stories can be written and designed very much along the literary “choose your own adventure” form that would allow for both gaming and subtly teaching the ideas of multiple perspectives and stories of the same event and place. Such an approach could engage the younger and upcoming generations increasingly raised to rely on and in turn understand the changing technology.
For more on what the students did, their results, and to see for yourself, please visit our website.
Scan the QR code to open Group One’s augmentations of the Bytown Museum’s ‘Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest’ exhibition.
For Group Two’s augmentations of the locale using 7Scenes, search within the app for Lovers’ Walk whilst standing in the vicinity of the Bytown Museum.
For Group Three’s experiments using Hoppala, search for Parliament Hill Ecohistory within Junaio or Layar. Group Three’s website may be found at