Augmenting the University: Using Augmented Reality to Excavate University Spaces

Christian Howard (ch4zs@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America and Monica Blair (mkb4rf@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America and Spyros Simotas (ss4ws@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America and Ankita Chakrabarti (ac4ze@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America and Torie Clark (vrc7de@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America and Tanner Greene (tjg6ph@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America

Project Website: http://reveal.scholarslab.org/

Intro

Using augmented reality (AR) applications, our project, titled  UVA Reveal: Augmenting the University , challenges the surface of our perceptions of objects and places. Our project specifically uses the University of Virginia (UVA), a large public state university, as its target. UVA is a southern historic campus with an enrollment of 22,000 students; given its history and recent spotlight in the news, UVA’s campus is ripe for the historical inquiry and narrative intervention that our project proposes. In augmenting UVA’s campus, we hope to expose the historical, cultural, (inter)national, (trans)sexual, and (dis)ability-related “archeology” of objects, places, and events.

Background of the Project

Augmented reality applications are becoming increasingly prevalent in society (witness Pokémon Go) and in the academy. For instance, a DH project titled The Whole Story uses an app that allows users to build AR statues of women and place them in the spatial landscape for others to see. By putting women back in the narrative, the app challenges the unequal statuary landscape and its implication that men are the makers of history. The digital spaces created by AR thus assume an openness and mobility that is lacking in physical space, which may be controlled or limited by socio-economic and political reasons. Nonetheless, these spatial boundaries can seemingly be circumvented in digital spaces, 1 and users can move rapidly across zones that they would be unable to otherwise.  UVA Reveal is thus designed to explore how real spaces can be experienced through changing, mobile technologies that enable spatial and temporal augmentation.

The objects of our investigation include both buildings and documents at or connected to UVA, especially documents from the special collections library. In particular, we are attempting to renegotiate UVA’s narratives about race, gender, and disability. For instance, a prominent mural on our campus depicts troubling scenes, including sexual harassment. We intend to use AR to highlight how women and other minorities are shown in this mural by directing attention to them and challenging the patriarchal gaze.

Image 1: Example of the augmentation of a prominent mural on UVA’s campus as viewed through the Unity editor.

Theory

The spatial historian Richard White has claimed: “Visualization and spatial history… is a means of doing research: it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” Similarly, our project neither contests nor reinforces the university’s archive; rather, we supplement our archival research with broader research beyond the university’s purview. As such, UVA Reveal enables viewers to make their own judgments about certain places and objects on UVA’s campus by bringing those items to viewers’ attention.

Methodology

UVA Reveal  will have two primary instantiations: a web-based version and an app. The web version will clearly layout both our research methods and findings. Specifically, as we engaged with Special Collections, we realized that our project could have benefitted from a more directed search experience. To that end, we created a search function using UVA library data. Given a database with a sample of Special Collections holdings, the user may research a topic (narrowly defined for the scope of our project) using multiple keywords that relate to that topic; this cross-search exposes links between thematic data otherwise unavailable. We are using the d3 library to visualize the resulting data. This search function is integrated into our website.

The second version of the project will explicitly draw upon AR technology. In particular, our project uses Unity to layer 3D models on images – including university buildings and physical objects – that will enable the viewer to experience the virtual layering of time upon an object. Unity is easily exportable to Android, iOS, and HoloLens platforms. Our users will thus be able to engage the AR experience through their personal devices.

Our team is committed to open access. Thus, we are using GitHub to manage our content and ensure that our work process is openly accessible.

Conclusion

Through research in Special Collections, we plan to unearth the many historical layers upon which UVA is built. Ultimately, we hope to use AR to allow users to experience these limited-access spaces and objects in new ways that prompt critical reflection on the structure, culture, mission, and history of the university.


Appendix A

Bibliography
  1. “Ambient Literature – This Is Your Part of the Story.”  Ambient Literature , UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, the University of Birmingham, and Calvium Ltd., June 2016. .
  2. E Silva, Adriana de Souza. “Mobile Narratives: Reading and Writing Urban Space with Location-Based Technologies,” Comparative Textual Media . Ed. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 33-52.
  3. White, Richard. “What Is Spatial History?”  Spatial History Project , 1 Feb. 2010. .
  4. “The Whole Story.”  The Whole Story , 2017. .
Notes
1.

We recognize that the same can be said about digital spaces, i.e. firewalls, paying services, language barriers, profile/password credentials, profiles set to private, digital literacy, etc. Our project, however, is open-source and freely available to the public.