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Student-Built Augmented Reality Tour Shares Black Paris

A professor of Africana studies who has maintained a longstanding virtual environment to teach his students about the Harlem Renaissance recently took a trip to Paris with a group of students to create an augmented reality tour of sites related to famous black expatriates. Bryan Carter, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, took eight undergraduates and one graduate student to Paris for a week to explore the city and work with a black tour company in "augmenting" its tours with audio, video, and pictorial information related to sites along the route.

Augmented reality is a technology that extends the real world when viewed through a device, such as a smartphone, tablet, or wearable.

The students developed their augmentation sources before arriving in Paris and then captured "trigger images" while on the tour. When viewed through an augmented reality app, these photographs display the additional sources. For the Paris project the group used layar, a development and viewer platform for Apple iOS and Google Android devices.

Carter worked with Julia Browne, the founder of Walking the Spirit Tours: Black Paris & Beyond, to identify 10 points of interest along her tour routes, which were then augmented by the students. For example, one student augmented the façade of Richard Wright's Parisian home with images of the author and links to relevant Web sites. A student extended an image of Josephine Baker Square with video of the Baker dancing, music of the time, and links to Baker-related Web sites.

original Josephine Baker place sign in Paris
augmented Place Josephine Baker in Paris
The original and augmented versions of Josephine Baker's place sign in Paris

Since an Internet connection is necessary for the augmentations to occur, Carter rented four mobile hotspots from XCom Global, which provides international mobile hotspots that can support up to five devices apiece for a flat daily rate. Students were shown how to turn off cellular data on their smartphones and connect via WiFi to the hotspots.

The project was part of "African Americans in Paris," a 400-level course taught by Carter. "After reading about the various cabarets and artists and entertainers and writers and other individuals who traveled or lived in Paris, it was fascinating for [the students] to go and see where some of these places were, where individuals lived and walked the same streets. We had a tour of the Sorbonne and were able to see where many of them spoke and learned," said Carter.

The students were also expected to maintain a journal of their experiences. As sophomore Courtney Francis recorded, "We had a tour of Black Paris! It was truly mesmerizing!!! To walk amongst the streets of greats, and know that we were standing in the midst of history, was so overwhelming and yet so exciting.... I saw the street where Malcolm X walked. I looked out the window that Richard Wright pondered his thoughts. I saw the stage that Josephine Baker danced her heart out on. And I [witnessed] the club that made famous artists like Bricktop internationally famous! France is filled with so much history and beauty that it sometimes makes me feel like I've lived here a thousand years."

Carter expects to repeat the project again in fall 2014 with a plan of encompassing "geo-locative" augmented reality. "I'm going to have students incorporate 3D objects and do green-screening," he said. That would allow a student, for example, to portray one of the historic characters coming out of the door of a building and explaining who he or she is and what the historic significance of the location is. Then, when a user of the app positions the device display at the building, based on its geo-location, the recording of the character will appear.

"So when you scan that location, you'll see that student walking out of the door dressed as Josephine Baker," Carter explained. "We'll expand and enhance what we've started this term."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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