Diversity & Inclusion
AR / Arts / Education

Augmented reality walk offers a new way to explore the solar system

The Baltimore County Public Libraries brought together Balit Virtual, Space Telescope Science Institute and children's book author Kevin Sherry to create SummAR Reading.

Kids use augmented reality at a Baltimore County Public Libraries story walk. (Courtesy photo)

With a new exhibit, Baltimore County Public Libraries (BCPL) are looking to make a walk in the park feel closer to space.

Through a collaboration with Baltimore tech and creative specialists, BCPL launched the SummAR Reading Augmented Reality Storywalk. At Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Catonsville and the Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Cockeysville, visitors can explore the solar system on storywalks outside through 14 brightly-colored panels that are equipped with animated 3D holograms that can be viewed through a mobile device.

“It’s part of the library’s mission to give exposure to all sorts of technologies and to inspire people to use them. Augmented reality is a super important form of technology that’s being used for really important things,” said Liz Sundermann, BCPL’s virtual and media services manager, who has been a key organizer on many efforts to introduce technology into libraries in recent years.

While AR had its introduction to many via Pokemon Go, Sundermann points to how medical schools are using the technology to train surgeons, and how AR is being used to assemble airplanes.

“We really want to have people interact with that technology in a different context, so they’re prepared for the world that is already happening,” said Sundermann, who spearheaded the initiative within BCPL along with Family Engagement Manager Conni Striptmatter.

The walk draws on the nationwide summer reading theme for 2019, which is “A Universe of Stories.” Created by Baltimore children’s book author and illustrator Kevin Sherry, the panels show planets, telescopes and other astronomy highlights.

Port Covington-based Balti Virtual brought them to life via augmented reality. Through its CampusAR app, the panels can be scanned to access the animations. CEO Will Gee said the company has used the free app in work with colleges and universities and is now being applied to work with libraries. Sundermann said Balti Virtual’s work on children’s books inspired her to reach out about this collaboration, as well.

The area’s own connection to space is also present in the collaboration via Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute. Based on the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, it’s the center of science operations for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope. With their partnership, the renderings of planets are straight from the Hubble, and the science facts are provided by the experts.

“We aim to inspire, excite, challenge, and educate the public by sharing scientific knowledge and we know the SummAR Reading program is helping achieve our goals,” Webb Science Communications Lead Dr. Alexandra Lockwood said in a statement. “This innovative program will help give tomorrow’s scientists, explorers, and innovators access to our world-class astronomical research, right in their local neighborhood.”

The collaboration came together in late Oct. 2018, and received support from the state via a $15,000 grant from the Maryland State Library, with funds provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Any Maryland library can access the images, which are being made available.

“Now, all of the images are available for all the public libraries in the state, and they work at any scale,” Sundermann said.

The project involved bringing together a group from a number of fields. When it comes to growing such collaborations, Sundermann said going to events outside of her own profession helped build relationships and inspire ideas.

“Pretty much every major project that I’ve done has been the result of a collaboration with non-library people,” she said. “There’s people in most industries that are pretty excited about education and helping empower their communities, so most people get pretty excited when I ask them if they want to help out.”

Companies: Balti Virtual / Space Telescope Science Institute

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