The Tennessee Historical Commission places approximately 20 markers a year commemorating sites, people, and events that are significant to Tennessee history. Four of those markers are on UT’s campus and nine more are within walking distance. But a paragraph of information on a marker can’t convey the full scope of a historical event. Lindy Westenhoff, a graduate student in geography, is exploring how augmented reality (AR) can provide greater context to our physical world.
A concept made popular through sci-fi movies and video games, AR technology is now available to anyone with a smartphone. AR uses GPS on a person’s mobile device to determine a user’s location and the device’s compass detects orientation. Integrating this information with the device’s camera, AR can layer information over the camera’s view of the real world.
Westenhoff became interested in how AR research might improve people’s understanding of the physical world while playing the popular mobile game Pokémon Go. Within the game, players see a map of the world around them, similar to using Google Maps. Players catch Pokémon that inhabit the world and can interact with virtual gyms and PokéStops, which are tied to real-world landmarks. Westenhoff often visited a gym called “Fish Legs Boat”, which is tied to an art installation next to Burchfiel Geography Building.
“In the app, there was no artist name, no placard, no other information,” said Westenhoff. “It’s a piece of public art called In Search of Noah by L. Benson Warren, and it’s a part of the City of Knoxville Public Arts Committee. Just having the correct name and artist would give better context to that site, but everyone just knows it as Fish Legs Boat.”
In geography, site and situation are often discussed in tandem to understanding a location. Site is where an object physically is in the landscape, and situation contextualizes the surrounding area. Fish Legs Boat was showing Westenhoff a site with no situation. In the game, a PokéStop consists of one image and a short string of text, giving no contextualizing information.
“There’s a PokéStop on the Hill at the historic marker, ‘Desegregation of UT’,” said Westenhoff. “That’s an important event in campus history. But one of the major problems with Pokémon Go is having no space for nuance or context. Then again, if you don’t play an AR-based game in the first place, would you even notice these things in the landscape?”
If AR is used in a critical manner, Westenhoff imagines a world where a user would be able to see something in the landscape and find more information that is more engaging than text from a search engine.
To do this, she studies how people navigate these historical sites. Westenhoff surveys and conducts interviews with fellow Pokémon Go players to learn how they engage with historical sites, what they know about the sites, and if they were aware of them before playing the game. She conducts field work, recording what information these PokéStops provide and filling in the blanks with information that is missing.
Westenhoff sees great potential in AR’s ability to provide more context to our landscape. She likens the project to an audio-guided tour. Walking through a museum, a visitor might walk past a work of art without seeing the name of the artist. An audio clip can provide contextual information including the time period the work was created, what was happening in the artist’s life that inspired them, or where the piece has been since its creation. Many museums are now experimenting with adding AR tours to their offerings.
But like with Fish Legs Boat, Westenhoff warns that if AR isn’t used critically, it won’t be helpful.
“The landscape is more complex than we often think it is, and AR gives us a lens to look at that. But if the lens is not focused, then we’re not going to get a clear picture of the complexities of our world.”
Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, firstname.lastname@example.org)