Augmented Reality: Preserving Lost Stories
During the June 9, 1863, Battle of Brandy Station, the grounds around the modest St. James Episcopal Church became a Confederate artillery position and bore witness to a horrific struggle when the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry and 6th U.S. Cavalry made an unsuccessful charge on the guns. The grounds became the final resting place for many who fell during the battle, and when the Army of the Potomac returned to Brandy Station for their winter encampment of 1863–1864, the structure itself became a casualty of war, as soldiers deconstructed it to use its red bricks for chimneys in their winter quarters.
The land on which the church stood has long been preserved, albeit bare of any physical church. But through the power of augmented reality (AR) technology, the American Battlefield Trust is now able to virtually place the structure back on the landscape, offering visitors a glimpse inside its hallowed walls for the first time since 1863.
Based on church records, first-hand accounts, images of similar period churches and a sketch of the church by Lt. Louis Henry Carpenter of the 6th U.S. Cavalry —the only surviving artistic rendition of the St. James Episcopal Church — the Trust and UK technology firm Zubr Curio were able to create graphics of the church’s exterior and interior. The web-based AR model can be dropped on the very grounds where the church stood during the Civil War, and viewers can walk inside and view the upper and lower floors.
The Trust’s first foray into augmented reality came in 2020 with an app placing multiple models on the Gettysburg Battlefield, such as President Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg AR Experience app is designed for use anywhere, letting the 16th president orate in schoolyards and backyards, although more advanced functionalities activate for those who bring the app to Gettysburg in person, as a mobile device scans the land and virtually places people and objects from the past in their precise geographic settings.
The Trust worked with partners Lumina Datamatics, an international firm with U.S. headquarters in Norwell, Mass., and Interactive Knowledge, a frequent Trust development partner based in Charlotte, N.C., to create the Gettysburg AR Experience app. Lumina Datamatics produced the app’s visual renderings — 3D animations and interactive objects and characters, while Interactive Knowledge built the app, which works for both iOS and Android systems and is structured to expand with additional interactive scenes.
Kurt Jordan, director of Account Development at Lumina Datamatics, said the company was excited from the outset by the way the project “marries high-quality educational content and the engaging use of technology.”
Trust Chief Historian Garry Adelman, who has given hundreds of battlefield tours, agreed, “What you need to do as a battlefield guide is to drag the past forward. We know that technology provides all sorts of windows to allow enlivening of the senses so you can get a little closer to the past. And the Gettysburg AR Experience is one of the closest things to time travel I have yet encountered.”
More recently, the Trust has worked to pull the models out of the app and offer them on a web-based platform, allowing for their use in wider applications and settings.
“What began in the app as multiple augmented models, bringing scenes to life and giving people a reason to visit various parts of the Gettysburg Battlefield, can now be taken out of the app and viewed separately from it using only a web browser. More and more we’ll be making our content available through a simple web browser, with no app download required,” says the Trust’s Chief Digital Officer Lawrence Swiader.
An AR model for Cold Harbor Tavern works the same, Swiader says. “Scan the QR code on the site’s sign, and we drop the full-size tavern on the ground where it was. You can walk through the building’s furnished rooms and see the rooms where travelers to the area would have gotten a cold drink, slept for the night or voted in a local election.”
Although touring historic sites with a guide remains the gold standard, AR can augment the experience, especially by demonstrating matters of scale.
At Fort Watson in South Carolina, the Trust will be offering a new AR experience, deviceless, through binoculars installed on the battlefield. Additional AR experiences and models are planned for Gettysburg, Franklin, Brandy Station and more, including for those battlefields and preservation opportunities that no longer exist.
“A lot of times, we’ll talk about a battlefield that’s been lost, no longer available for us to preserve,” said Swiader says. “Augmented reality gives us the ability to go there and still represent that battle. It’s a way of recovering history even when land preservation can’t do that.”
There are 29 critical acres of battlefield land in Virginia, at Glendale, and at Gaines’ Mill/Cold Harbor that we have the opportunity to save in...