Talk of augmented reality, and it often brings to mind a future where glasses or displays are adding digital elements to what we see. Yet as use cases emerge, the technology is also proving to be valuable for engaging with history.
The latter will be on view inside a new office building at 21st and L streets in downtown D.C. In the lobby of the building, Baltimore AR/VR studio Balti Virtual created an augmented reality exhibit to educate visitors on the site’s past as a home to one of the District’s first schools built solely with public funds to educate Black children.
In the lobby of the building, the exhibit features images including the Thaddeus Stevens School, as well as its namesake and notable alumni. Scanning the images with Balti Virtual’s AppAR8 app on a phone or iPad will bring them to life in a “magic window” with animation and speech from each figure. Along with Stevens, the figures on display include alums of the school such as Washington Post columnist Colbert King and the singer Roberta Flack, as well as prominent D.C. figures such as the surgeon and blood bank pioneer Dr. Charles Drew.
The exhibit, which is in place but will have a public opening when COVID-19 restrictions allow, is part of an effort to connect the legacy of the site. The historic Thaddeus Stevens School, which closed as a public in 2008 but is being renovated, still sits adjacent to the 10-story office building. With the land owned by the District, it’s always been a priority to have an exhibit for the public at the site, along with a scholarship and other public amenities such a pocket park.
Initially it was envisioned as more of a static story wall. But Akridge had worked with Balti Virtual previously, and the team decided AR could be a route to bring the historical figures to life. The District was on board.
“In hindsight it was a brilliant move,” said Dean Lopez, senior VP for development and construction with Columbia-based COPT.
Balti Virtual researched the content and developed artwork. As they progressed, Toney spoke with King and Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. councilmember and Southeastern University president who is the daughter of Dr. Drew.
“It was a very good collaborative effort to come up with the right language and narrative for the stories,” Toney said.
Being a “trophy” office building, the development team at Akridge and COPT also saw AR as helping with design of a high-end space.
“It’s nice that you can access that level of content when you want it, but then it sort of recedes” if you’re not looking through your phone, said Balti Virtual CEO Will Gee.
Reflecting the past, it’s an exhibit that’s created with an eye toward tomorrow. For Gee, who sees a future in 15 to 20 years when augmented reality is a more prevalent part of our every day experience, it’s also something that can grow in the future. Toney said the partners can add to the offerings with additional content or as technology evolves.
“We’re excited about the future possibilities of this content,” said Gee. “Right now it’s packaged up neatly and fits within the space.”-30-