Something New in Your Neighborhood: Augmented Reality

One of the coolest features of PhillyHistory.org is the ability to browse historical photographs alongside the contemporary Google street view, enabling users to meld past and present at the click of a mouse.   But what would that feature look like in real time – not through a computer screen but rather on a smart phone via an application that overlays a historic image on the modern landscape? Through a combination of the GPS and camera technologies available on today’s smart phones, a prototype augmented reality application for PhillyHistory.org will provide users with the opportunity to experience the site’s archival collections in this truly unique way. Currently, we plan on making nearly every image in the PhillyHistory database that is associated with a location available on the augmented reality prototype. Out of the whole collection, however, we’ve also selected 500 images that can be viewed separately. These 500 images have been “pinned” in 3-D space, meaning that we’ve tried to line up points in the photo with points that still exist in the current landscape such as a roof line or street corner. The result, we’re hoping, is that the photos will appear on your phone in the correct orientation. If you’re slightly to the left of the location where the photo was taken, the photo will be angled slightly to the left. If you’re facing the location, the photo will be visible head-on. This should enable users to more easily see how the historic image compares to the current landscape.  While this technology underlying augmented reality is exciting, a lot of other behind-the-scenes work in the City Archives is also helping to bring the project to fruition.

Everyone has a favorite photograph or area of the city to explore on PhillyHistory.org but to select approximately 500 photographs out of the site’s roughly 93,000 images was a daunting challenge.  From the outset, we aimed to provide broad geographical coverage of the city in our selections, as well as represent the variety of collections available on PhillyHistory.org. In addition to the Department of Records, the database also includes images from the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Office of the City Representative, and the Philadelphia Water Department.  Primary considerations for selection included the date of the photograph, historical and aesthetic interest, and educational value, as well as how accurately a photograph matched up with the available Google Street View (current street level photos of Philadelphia), which we used to pin the photos as described above.  In addition, we were interested not only in photographs of locations that had changed dramatically but also photographs where some elements of the historic image and current street view were the same. We also had to avoid aerial photos since users would never be able to physically reach the point where the photo was taken. Ultimately, even with all these parameters in mind, our search of PhillyHistory’s collections yielded a fascinating wealth of photographs that offer compelling snapshots of the ties between Philadelphia’s past and present.

Some of the most interesting areas of the city to explore through augmented reality are college and university campuses, which have often changed dramatically over time.  Several of the photographs selected from the University of Pennsylvania area notably highlight the development of Woodland Walk, the central artery through campus that, in 1936, was a far cry from the manicured walkway that it is today. Similarly, images of St. Joseph’s University around 54th Street and City Avenue chronicle City Avenue’s transition from a largely undeveloped road to a bustling commercial hub over a scant twenty years time.  In North Philadelphia, Temple University’s expansion down North Broad Street is evidenced in various photographs of the Chinese restaurants, Victrola stores, and automobile license centers that have been replaced by campus buildings.

Another aspect of PhillyHistory’s collections that we chose to highlight in the augmented reality project is best described as “new looks at old places,” meaning photographs that show popular Philadelphia destinations and attractions in new or unexpected ways.  Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Independence Hall and the surrounding area between Chestnut and Market Streets before many of the older buildings were cleared away for the construction of Independence Mall.  Photographs of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and prominent institutions like the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art also offer a new look at a familiar landscape, one that historically featured more open space than busy highway.  Other notable landmarks that augmented reality enables us to see in a different light include the Betsy Ross House, Market East Station, Reading Terminal Market, and City Hall, particularly before Broad Street Station was demolished in the 1950s to make way for Penn Plaza.

In the course of our selection process, the developers at Azavea, the software company assisting with the augmented reality application, created a map showing the geographic distribution of our selections to help ensure that nearly all of Philadelphia was adequately represented in the augmented reality prototype.  Many of the images were taken in Center City since PhillyHistory.org is especially rich in images of that area. While we strove to include a mix of neighborhoods beyond Center City, some areas were especially challenging in terms of selection.  Fairmount Park yielded few photographs where the location or Google Street View was precise enough for augmented reality.  In addition, Strawberry Mansion and the far Northeast proved challenging in terms of the subject of the photographs, many of which depict the minutia of street and bridge construction.  While these photos capture the development of the urban landscape, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location of each section of road.  On the other end of the spectrum, neighborhoods such as Chestnut Hill, Overbrook, and South Philadelphia offered a plethora of historic images that captivated us and often uncannily echoed the contemporary Google Street View.  From the street signs of the Italian Market to train and trolley stops, many photographs from these neighborhoods featured the true convergence of past and present that is at the heart of augmented reality.  As the project moves forward, we are so excited to share the prototype application with you in the coming months. Hopefully, you will find our photograph selections as interesting and intriguing as we do and maybe even find something new (or old) in YOUR neighborhood.

Augmented Reality by PhillyHistory.org is funded by a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this application do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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