We have covered the team's work before. Last summer, they came to the EVA London conference in order to showcase their nascent project to add AR tools and techniques to aid the wider understanding of the architectural history of Newcastle. Their work was covered in Reinventing Reality, an article which was published last August.
This year, the team return to EVA London to update delegates on their findings. The main idea has remained constant - to apply mobile AR to preserving heritage. While the earlier work explored some of the theoretical considerations as to how the technology could work, the examples are now tangible: fully real, if you like.
The team were awarded a small research grant to continue their work. This enabled not only the research to continue, but for the team to expand into a technical implementation of some of their work. The framework is now complete, and they are now progressing onto implementing a fully-functioned prototype app for iOS. Later in the year, the regional museum in the centre of Newcastle will launch the prototype to the public. 20 significant historical sites in Newcastle have been selected for it, covering the parallel focuses of industrial heritage and the Victorian period. The second focus is more specifically architectural than the first.
Using the app will be where the AR work comes into its own. Newcastle's citizens and visitors will be able to walk around particular sites, hold the app up to the building, and dynamically photos and records related to that building as the handset is moved.
The year has been helpful to Gu, who sees younger generations as open to, and embracing of, such technology. That doesn't mean, however, that the app takes a "one-size-fits-all" attitude. People will want different things from architectural history.
"One of the important things has to be the interface: giving different levels of information to different groups of users. we're looking at two different levels. The first is more general - images and text in suitable formats for the public, to gain a general understanding of heritage sites. For the more professional user groups, such as urban planners or policymakers, they may want to see the patterns of change, patterns of migration, and so on."
Gu's colleague Nick Foulcher sees AR as now being part of the toolbag for designers, analysts, and, naturally, those in the practice of architectural visualisation. While using VR has been commonplace for years, the delivery of sophisticated AR tools to standard mobile operating systems opens up new possibilities for citizens and industrial professionals alike.
"We're on the cusp. Architects are now able to directly project an image of what they mean. Switching between different times and eras will allow designers and planners to understand the environment more effectively. There's a lot of smart, creative people here now; these projects are going to contribute to that generational and cultural change. Our apps will evolve with time, through a constant injection of life in the city."
Matters of substance
No matter how great the technology, projects such as this would fail to get off the ground without content. The team found Newcastle's city archive thankfully open and willing to donate their time and material, but it didn't stop there. Consulting with community and conservation groups was vital, and Gu warmly comments on the interest that he has received from the general public in building this platform for wider dialogue.
"We have tried to make it fun, interesting and easy: so people can know more, and access it [the exhibition and app]. We are getting a lot of people involved.
"For researchers and artists working in a similar area, you really need to get out there so people know what you're working on. People like to support you if the project is close to the community. You're talking about history, and they re all part of it. Their social histories are not always represented in the media. It's this richness about their community that they are part of, that people find very exciting."
It's these conduits into everyday society that the "real" gets into sharper focus. An administrator at Newcastle University used to work for the local train company, whose workshops were abandoned, with the building eventually becoming part of the museum. She shared all of her old photos and records with the team, significantly bolstering the body of content available through the AR app.
Overall, the team are optimistic about the future: both in terms of the potential of AR in social and architectural history, and the reaction and participation that social AR projects will bring. More stories deliver richer apps, and richer apps will tease out more stories. As Gu says, "... everyone has a story to tell, and we would like them to share their stories with us."
Ning Gu is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Built Environment, and Nicholas Foulcher is a Casual Academic and Research Assistant, at the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Newcastle.
Ning Gu, Nicholas Foulcher and project leader Tessa Morrison are presenting "Applying Augmented Reality to Preserving Industrial Heritage" at EVA London, 10/07/12 – 12/07/12. For further information and to book, visit the EVA London website.