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A Broad Street AR experience brings underwater fun to Philly without the shore traffic

The augmented reality app means you can stay dry, but still enjoy swimming with the fish.

Beach on North Broad in 2019 (North Broad Renaissance/Facebook)

If you see a giant octopus on North Broad Street this summer, the heat wave isn’t causing you to hallucinate. It’s just augmented reality.

The North Broad Renaissance is launching a new feature next week on its Lights of North Broad app for the summer called Sea ABroad, an AR feature that makes users feel like they are in an underwater landscape. The Lights of North Broad app started in 2022 as a partnership with Fairmount-based AR and VR design agency Dream Syndicate. Sea ABroad will go live on June 28.

“It’s a fun thing for kids, primarily, and just anybody who likes augmented reality,” Howard McCabe, executive creative director for Dream Syndicate, told Technical.ly. “But really, it’s just [to] engage the community.”

The idea for Sea ABroad came from the event Beach on North Broad, a pop-up beach on the lawn of the Leon H. Sullivan Human Services Center. In 2018 and 2019, organizers shipped in sand for a giant sandbox and provided beach chairs, umbrellas, hammocks and games for the neighborhood to enjoy, Shalimar Thomas, executive director of the North Broad Renaissance, said.

Developers built Sea ABroad on an existing history-based AR app

The North Broad Renaissance connects stakeholders and promotes economic development, historic preservation and community building on North Broad street. The nonprofit special service district wanted to bring its Beach on Broad event back this year, but one of the project’s partners fell through.

Sea ABroad is part of the North Broad Renaissance’s larger summer ABroad series, which is a lineup of events and activities from June through August along the North Broad corridor.

“The more I thought about it, I was like the AR experience is the opportunity,” Thomas said.

The Lights of North Broad app provides an augmented reality-based self guided tour to historical spots along North Broad Street.

The app’s original stops are the Rail Park, the Divine Lorraine, the Blue Horizon, Progress Plaza and the Uptown Theater. Augmented reality tour guide, Aunyea Lachelle — also host of NBC10’s Philly Live — provides information about the history of each site.

Besides having fun, Sea ABroad is also a way to get people to visit North Broad and stay to engage with the other stops on the AR tour or visit local businesses, McCabe said.

The app will also stop at the Leon H. Sullivan Charitable Trust, the site of the original Beach on North Broad pop-up. The app will include historical information about the building in addition to the ocean experience, Thomas said.

Walk on sand and swim with the fish on Broad Street

The Sea ABroad AR experience shows the Leon H. Sullivan Charitable Trust and 50 feet around it underwater.

Visitors will suddenly be surrounded by sand instead of grass and schools of fish swimming through a coral reef. The sealife also includes a sperm whale, sharks and turtles swimming amongst the seaweed. There’s even a sunken pirate ship off in the distance. The focal point of the experience is a giant octopus hanging out on the building’s facade.

There’s also a scavenger hunt to find three golden fish in the landscape. The feature even sounds like you’re underwater.

On the app, the Sea ABroad stop is marked by a beach ball and beach umbrella. It uses GPS and virtual private networks for positioning and Niantic’s AR software in the backend, which is known for games like Pokémon GO.

Thomas still wants to bring the full beach experience back, but for now, people in the neighborhood can enjoy an underwater AR experience.

“We can keep on making sure that we share the history of the corridor and the future of the corridor,” Thomas said, “and also provide some fun elements in it as well.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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