Can augmented reality change the way people experience cities?

Cities, such as Buffalo, New York, and Fairfax, Virginia, are beginning to use augmented reality to improve the way residents and visitors interact with the cityscape around them. Efforts are part of a larger movement to boost tourism, the economy and community experiences in general.

Augmented reality can enhance visitors ’experiences by superimposing images or information about a place on a smartphone screen. Imagine a historical place brought to life through virtual interaction; perhaps a historical figure describes the importance of the area or a virtual teacher pays a visit. One such example is a project in Charlotte, North Carolina, that will soon provide visitors with a historical perspective of black neighborhoods razed through a virtual replica.

In Buffalo, the effort to reimagine the visitor experience is based on an app to showcase the area’s history on signs posted at Olmsted Parks. The initiative was led by the nonprofit Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy (BOPC) and with the support of Market New York through the state’s Tourism Division, as part of the Development Council initiative. Regional Economic, and M&T Bank.

The app, developed by New Bird, was launched in June 2021 under the name Olmsted App 2.0. It offers an RA portal through park signs, offering visitors a glimpse of places that no longer exist, effectively preserving those places through technology. Both RA attractions, Lake View House in Front Park and Quarry Garden in Delaware Park, provide information on historical details of the original park designs that no longer physically exist.

According to BOPC Director of Development and Communications Catie Stephenson, part of the purpose of this app is to create an attraction that will drive tourism to Buffalo from other parts of the state.

Although COVID-19 changed travel and delayed the initial launch of the app, he noted that traffic to the parks has also increased, which may influence the project’s impact on the community.

The Delaware Park sign offers an augmented reality view of historic Quarry Garden.

Image courtesy of Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

“We wanted to provide a portal to the past, so that people could see these landscapes in real time and compare them to the landscape we have here today,” Stephenson explained.

Meanwhile, in Fairfax, the city’s Office of Economic Development and the Parks and Recreation Department are behind an effort to use the technology in two ways.

Developed with Engage ARt and EXAR Studios, the project will offer two separate experiences to those who download the app for smartphones: one is a technological turn in the shopping experience in Old Town Plaza, while the other is focuses on animating a local statue. The project was made possible thanks to a grant through the Smart City Challenge.

Matthew Easley, program manager for the Fairfax Office of Economic Development, expects the app to be available in the fall of 2021 and said one of the key goals of the project is to attract students from nearby George Mason University.

“This is one of the things we try to do; we try to get students into the city as much as possible and spend their money, ”Easley explained about the expected economic impact.

To do so, the AR project uses part of a brick wall that will have an augmented reality function, Easley explained. Visitors can download an app and point the phone at the wall for information on up to five companies in the area.

Easley described them as “Easter eggs” and as they appear, the user can catch them for more business information. Potentially, there may be collaboration with these companies to offer discounts through the platform.

According to Megan DuBois, Fairfax’s cultural arts manager in the city’s parks and recreation department, AR creates interactive places in the city that expect young people to participate.

Augmented reality also helps to draw attention to art in the Old Town Square, specifically a statue of a girl with a dog. The app will bring bronze sculpture to life, animating the dog, DuBois explained. Users can see how the dog plays to look for or even dig up the nearby historic garden.

He said RA was a way to add an interactive component to something everyday: “magic” that can be experienced in the city. “I think that [AR] it’s the direction the arts are going, and I’m very excited to follow the initial path to Fairfax, ”DuBois said.

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