An interdisciplinary team led by Virginia Tech received a nearly $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the development of an augmented reality (AR) program prototype for visitors to Pamplin Historical Park to immerse them in Civil War history.

By utilizing AR technology, the project aims to bring history to life and provide an interactive and immersive experience for visitors, where they will have access to multimedia-guided interpretations of historical documents and videos featuring historians sharing diverse perspectives.

The goal is to foster deeper empathy, curiosity and understanding by allowing visitors to engage with the stories of soldiers and noncombatants, including enslaved individuals in the area, their roles, environment, struggles and their connections with their families.

The project is led by Virginia Tech in collaboration with Virginia Commonwealth University, the Park and its National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

Visitors to the Pamplin Historical Park will use their mobile phone to engage with spatial as well as “flat content” to orient themselves on the grounds and explore stories of the people who were here from varying perspectives, both military and civilian, free and enslaved.

In addition to models, videos and images, sound and volumetric video will be used to tell the stories.

Dr. Todd Ogle, executive director of applied research in immersive experiences and simulations, explains he has wanted to use AR to illustrate events from the past while on historic sites for over 15 years.

“The technology needed to get to a consumer level before the work made practical sense,” he says. “One of our first on-site AR projects was at the historic Christiansburg Institute ten years ago.”

There they used the Metaio SDK, which was purchased by Apple back in 2016, but at that time Ogle’s team only implemented static 3D models.

“With this project, we want to explore animated models as well as other geographically registered information,” he says. 

Ogle points out AR is well suited to situating information in the real environment, be it the landscape or the built environment.

“The potential lies in sharing hidden information that is all around us, whether it is historical, urban planning, fantasy or something else,” he says. “The potential for VR integration with AR is the true definition of mixed reality in my opinion.”

He explains they are doing some of that in this project, where the current landscape and viewshed is so vastly different to the historic ones.

“In some instances, we will step through a portal to a VR view, where the entire scene is generated for the visitor,” he adds. “Both AR and VR can help us to visualize a past that we can no longer see. History is an imperfect recounting of the past, and we cannot travel through time, obviously. These tools can help us to see what is unseen.”

Ogle points out that isn’t always objects– in some cases, it is the story of the people who were once in the space that visitors are currently occupying.

“Our hope is that giving people a glimpse into what once was in a more first person, experiential way, can provide the context they need to remember what they’ve learned,” Ogle says. “Show, don’t tell. Do, rather than show.”

He says the ability to balance the “wow” factor with a meaningful, educational experience is a critical aspect of designing these experiences, because the engagement itself can overwhelm the visitor with what the focus is on.

For example, a beautiful rendering of the architecture is visually overwhelming enough to distract from other information in the environment, such as a narration or simulation.

“Also, we avoid simulating people to the extent possible, other than direct quotes, because of the risk of misrepresentation or representation without consent,” he says. “Overall, we avoid making a game of historical events, but still seek to grab attention and hold it long enough to leave the visitor with a meaningful impression of what life might have been like for people in this place at a different time.”