CONTRIBUTOR

In the heart of Berlin, the collection of museums and educational institutions known as the Humboldt Forum crowns Museum Island in reconstructed baroque splendor.

The Humboldt Forum takes the form of the city’s former royal palace, which was demolished by the East German government following World War 2.

Following the demolition of the royal palace, a modern structure of white marble and reflective glass, the “Palace of the Republic”, occupied the site from 1976 until the early 2000s, when it was slowly disassembled to make way for the Humboldt Forum.

A symbolic institution and social gathering place during East Germany’s socialist regime, the Palace of the Republic’s demolition sparked controversy that persists to this day.

To address this, the Humboldt Forum has developed an augmented reality (AR) app as part of its “Blown Away” exhibition, which offers users with an immersive glimpse into the palace’s history between the mid-1970s to 2006.

By scanning QR codes placed both inside and outside the building, users can visualize the palace’s former appearance inside and out, offering a unique historical perspective.

The aim is to bring the historical urban context of the city onto smartphones and tablets, along with more information about the building’s history and design aesthetic.

“It was a possibility for us to make this multilayered history visible,” said Nathalie Keurmeur interim lead, department of digital structures and products at Stiftung Humboldt Forum in the Berliner Schloss. “This place is a lot more complex than simply a baroque palace standing here for hundreds of years like the Louvre in Paris.”

She said the multi-sensory experience goes beyond just listening to an audio guide or a tour guide and offers users a more emotional experience.

“As you move your smartphone, you’re discovering the spaces, and your learning process is linked to the discovery process,” Keurmeur said. “It’s entertaining, but it’s rich content, so you learn something while you’re immersed in a different and unexpected environment.”

Lukas Kraehn, project manager and VR/AR developer, said there were many tech hurdles to overcome—fitting the experience into the existing architecture of the Humboldt Forum’s website, for one—and figuring out how to fit existing 3D models of the Palace of the Republic into the AR experience.

“The most common challenge we face when developing AR applications is the expectations of what augmented reality can do and the current state of technology and what it really can do at this point, which are sometimes very different,” he said. As developers, we try to keep up as much as possible to these high expectations.”

The 3D-models were developed by CyberRauber, with whom Humboldt Forum is collaborating on another mixed reality experience. The app itself was created by GuidePilot.

Keurmeur and Kraehn said they both see a bright future ahead for the use of AR applications to help teach tourists and Berliners alike about the history of the city and civilizations farther afield.

“One of our main motivations for working with this technology is to attract more people to the museum and give them an experience they haven’t seen before,” Keurmeur said. “This web app is an appetizer—we’re working on additional memorable experiences.”

Tuong Nguyen, a Gartner analyst specializing in AR and VR technology, said creative applications of AR technology like this demonstrate the art of the possible and get him thinking about how this experience could be stitched together across a city landscape to offer tourists and locals alike a more experiential and engaging educational experience.

“It shows us what’s coming in a very relatable way,” he explained. “This is one of the ways augmented reality can benefit users – seeing the unseen – whether it has to do with something present or what this area looked like before.”

He pointed out that making history more interactive gives users the opportunity to follow their own paths and seek out information that aligns with their interests.

“This technology potentially makes all of Berlin augmented reality accessible, rather than this one location,” he said. “It makes everything a bit more visceral.”

From Berlin to the battlefields of the Civil War in the United States, AR technology is creating new opportunities for education: The Pamplin Historical Park initiative aims to offer visitors an immersive Civil War history experience through multimedia-guided interpretations of historical documents and videos.

By engaging with the stories of soldiers, noncombatants and enslaved individuals, the project seeks to cultivate empathy, curiosity and understanding of the era.