Black Gotham AR @ SXSW EDU

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While there were dozens of panels about augmented reality (AR) at SXSW EDU, there were far fewer that actually showed real AR in action.  “Black Gotham: Immersive Storytelling & Technology” was in the latter category, and offered many participants their first glimpse beyond the theory of AR storytelling and into its practice.

The panel was led by Kamau Ware, Black Gotham’s founder and visionary.  He brought his intelligence, energy and charisma to a history of New York that he’d clearly told before but that was new, even to this well-informed audience.  He told the history of an eighty year war between the Spanish and the Dutch, and how pirates attacked Spanish slave ships and delivered the first Africans to the Dutch in New Amsterdam.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room who was bit shocked at my own ignorance of this early chapter in New York’s history.  How many times had I thought about the African-American experience in New York without ever being aware of its origin?

Ware displayed wide-ranging talent—not only as a storyteller and historian, but also as the author of a graphic novel, the organizer of installations and and a studio at New York’s South Side Seaport, and the creator of an augmented reality experience.  This last, though only in its infancy, offered something concrete that clearly got the audience excited.

Ware was joined in the room by the creative team from Rapport Studios, and Armando Somoza, Rapport’s CEO, who spoke about the collaboration between Ware and Rapport.  To view their work, they instructed the audience to download Blippar, an augmented reality app, on their phones, and then train their phone’s camera at the seemingly normal image they’d left on the tables.  When we did, an interactive menu appeared on the phone’s screen, overlaid on the image from the paper, and you could access text telling the stories of each of the characters in the image.

While a little glitchy, and only adding a digital layer of text over an image on paper, my imagination immediately saw the potential.  I’m not sure how others in the room felt, but my mind leapt to walking tours through cities where buildings and landmarks could reveal their untold stories.  Layers of history and experience would come alive in augmented vision—familiar things would be seen through the lens on your phone, which would surface invisible backstories and hidden relationships from long ago on the screen of a very 21st century device.

As we come to recognize the hidden histories of our daily spaces, representing these histories is a pressing challenge.  My table-mates and I began to imagine apps that could offer everyday pedestrians a glimpse of the places where Octavius Catto fought (and died) for voting rights on streets near where I live in Philadelphia, or of the role of slavery in the construction of the Georgetown University campus.  As I recalled the powerful passages of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings on Civil War battlefields and the varieties of ways history is distorted and avoided, I wondered at the power of a digital experience like this to represent a narrative counter to the lies and omissions in the official versions.

Black Gotham, though a work in progress, stands as an inspiration for this kind of work.  The panel offered a valuable glimpse beyond the theory and into the practice of AR.  I would hope that attendees at SXSW EDU 2019 would see dozens of such examples.

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