Design 29 – Augmented reality

Design 29

It’s hard to think back to the beginning of a project that has taken up so much of your time and interest. It’s like it was always there, fully formed and just awaiting the opening. Of course, it’s not like that at all. The interactive iPad application accompanying Design 29: creating a capital is an evolution of ideas and components - some worked, some didn’t - that grew and changed over the year. When the app was first conceived, we were wide-eyed and optimistic about the possibilities that the technology provided. As we worked through it, we discovered its potential and its limitations, its pitfalls and its possibilities, and a few lessons that we will take into the next digital adventure.

When it was proposed that the original Walter Burley Griffin design for Canberra be displayed for the Centenary of Canberra year in 2013, a digital delivery was far from our minds. The drawings are works of art in their own right and could hold their own in a white cube display.

The thing is though these drawings do more than just speak for themselves. They ask questions of the visitors, and visitors ask questions of them. They are truly social objects; visitors from Canberra can’t help but make comparisons to modern day Canberra, to find their house, to find the places they love to visit and see if they have a 1912 equivalent in the designs.

How could we further encourage this dialogue? And how could we bring non-Canberrans into the conversation? We needed to be able to give all visitors the tools to make the comparisons, without drawing any conclusions for them.

It was in this spirit that we decided to investigate augmented reality (AR). The State Library of Queensland used AR technology to create Floodlines, which allowed visitors to explore the extent of the 2011 Brisbane floods .. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney developed an app for use out and about in the city to explore Sydney in pictures as it was 100 years ago.

We saw that the development of an app could create an experience that a traditional exhibition could not - a truly interactive and independent experience. One of the main features we were looking to create was an overlay of modern Canberra onto the original designs. Visitors could place their own interpretation of the old and new and decide themselves whether those original plans had been followed.

Design 29

Design 29 iPad application

As much as the technology gave us many new and varied options, it also held us back. Developing an app for an exhibition you haven’t seen yet and with technology that you’re unfamiliar creates issues that we had not previously had to deal with. Lighting in the gallery was low to protect the drawings but became problematic for the app as it meant the iPads could not reliably read the drawings. We had to change tack quickly and launch content from a humble marker. And this had flow-on effects for our designers as they worked to meet technology requirements not previously considered.

As always, as deadlines approached some of the lofty ideas had to be whittled down to pragmatic alternatives. But we could still create some stars of the show, including cockatoos, floods and 360 degree cycloramas. The app also gave us the opportunity to give visitors access to the entire document rather than the front cover or most interesting page as selected by the curators. Visitors could pick how much, or how little, they wanted to read..

However, for all our hard work, it wouldn’t be until the opening that we could see how our visitors reacted. It was a nerve-racking wait! Would the Archives traditional audience take to our new toy? What would children do with the technology? Fortunately, visitors have taken up the iPads with gusto . An obliging gallery host in the space has proved to be invaluable; there’s nothing like a friendly face with a little advice to help encourage anyone unsure with technology. Many users have been delighted by the app and the stories it unlocks.

Design 29

Design 29 patrons using the iPad

So what next? The bar has been set and barriers have been broken; we look forward to the next opportunity to do something fun and innovative with digital technology. We have come away from the experience of Design 29 with an improved understanding of what an iPad and augmented reality can do for us, and a thirst to know more. Perhaps we’ve paved the way for displaying born-digital records, and perhaps we’ve found a new way to bring paper records to life. In any case, our next digital adventure in the gallery space will certainly benefit from what Design 29 taught us.

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