App Insights

What can augmented reality do for your heritage site?

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Augmented reality (AR), as the name implies, is about adding something to the real world as we perceive it – an innovative, exciting prospect for businesses of all types.

Put simply, smartphone AR apps respond to triggers in the environment and do something in response. This might be something as simple as a soundtrack – you walk into the ballroom and a string quartet starts to play, swelling as you cross the dance floor. It might be something more complex, like a content display on your phone – aim the camera at an empty chair and the screen sketches in its occupant, its maker, a highlighted snapshot of details too fine for the casual eye.  Unlike virtual reality, there are no goggles, no headset, and no motion controllers required. Just your customers, their smart devices and possibilities limited only by your imagination.

How does AR work?

There are two ways to trigger an AR app – GPS and camera.

GPS triggers are location-based. If you’ve turned on the GPS function on your phone, the AR app receives your location and triggers content – sounds, displays, messages and so on – in response. While this is dependent on a good GPS signal, it’s great for guiding visitors around a site without needing signs every ten feet, and for surprising them with unexpected stimuli – like the roar of cannon fire right behind them on a battlefield or the blare of trumpets from a castle rampart.

Camera triggers, meanwhile, exploit developments in smartphone technology. Current smartphone cameras perform complex image recognition to work out exactly what they’re looking at, while adjusting focus and framerate to provide the best picture. AR apps use the same image recognition technology to trigger content when the phone is pointed at an object, some text, or a pattern like a QR code.

What does AR offer to heritage sites?

AR is exciting for heritage groups because it does the same work they do. Heritage sites are rich in detail and interest, and much of their appeal is imaginative. Visitors explore the environments, look at artefacts and interact with objects, engaging their minds and thinking about how the site used to be. AR provides more stimuli for that process – sensory input and information which appears dynamically as the visitor moves around. AR can also provide more information without the need for plaques and placards cluttering a site, breaking the visitors’ immersion.

By adding to visitors’ experience, AR improves their understanding – and it helps staff immerse themselves more fully in the places they love. It doesn’t replace what you’re already doing, and it needn’t be difficult or expensive.

By way of example, consider the Bridge Trails app for Clifton Suspension Bridge. This app allows users to explore audio and visual content, including guide narration and artists’ impressions, at fifteen distinct points on and around the bridge. If you’re physically on the bridge, these trigger when you arrive at the appropriate place; they also allow you to explore the bridge remotely, using the app to work you way through the material at your own pace.

Cycle of Songs works in a similar way for points of interest along the 2014 Tour de France route in Cambridge, but the content that’s triggered is musical: nine songs about the sites by local artists.

The apps can also create an experience of their own. Escape from the Tower is an on-site game which draws visitors to the less-frequented areas of the Tower of London, enhancing their experience by drawing their attention to the things most often missed. The game has to be downloaded on site, but it can be completed later, keeping visitors engaged after they’ve left the Tower – which keeps them receptive to messages, offers and invitations down the line.

AR can even be used to evoke the ghosts of sites now lost to time, like the Palace of Whitehall. The Lost Palace app presents the people and places that used to exist where modern streets now run, making an invisible heritage visible through visitors’ devices. The app immerses visitors in the past on a strictly no-screens basis, through haptic and aural feedback (touch and sound), and invites them to participate by casting them in a historical drama which unfolds as they move around the site.

AR makes the impossible possible, by supplementing, enhancing and – well, augmenting – the work of heritage professionals on their sites. To see how other heritage sites have enhanced their offerings with AR, take a look at our case studies.