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Fort York’s history to get a virtual reality retelling

Fort York is this city’s oldest remaining historical attraction, a pastoral, yet still working anachronism that is slowly being engulfed by surrounding condo development.

Using its virtual reality technology, Toronto’s Awe Company has been working with the Fort for the past few years on a plan that will eventually give visitors a glimpse of life at the Fort throughout its history, bringing to life some of the pivotal events — like the Battle of York — that helped to create this city.

By Raju Mudhar | Toronto Star


Awe Company is creating a virtual reality component that lets visitors to Fort York take in part in interactive experiences throughout the Fort's history. (STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR)

Think of it as an attempt at using cutting-edge technology to bring the past back to life. It’s an application being presented at Google’s annual I/O developers’ conference this week.

Though virtual reality is usually considered the next big thing in gaming, there are plenty of other uses. Awe and Fort York’s collaboration is an example of virtual tourism — using interactive experiences to transport visitors and add context to an historical site.

Srinivas Krishna, president of Awe, approached the city with the idea of using his technology, said David O’Hara, manager of the Fort York site.

“It’s difficult for the public to appreciate the fact that this is a significant and authentic fort, with buildings that are 200 years old,” said O’Hara. Krishna’s project seemed like a good fit, “to help explain the context, help explain the landscape and to help explain the stories.”

Slipping on the headset that holds a Project Tango tablet, Google’s still-in-beta-testing device, computer graphics fill in what time has erased. Once you put on the headset, you can see virtual markers that you walk up to. At each of these, an in-screen prompt comes up, which triggers a film scene telling some of the Fort’s history — adding a crucial bit of context.

“What people don’t realize is that this Fort was on the water,” said Krishna, gesturing with his headset in hand. “With these, you can see where it was.”

The virtual reality technology allows visitors to see different periods in the Fort’s history: from the First Nations story before the Fort was built through the Simcoe era, the Battle of York and on to Confederation.

“We’re able to tell the stories in a multi-layered way,” said O’Hara. “We actually at one point talked about doing a little Great War vignette, because this site was used for staging, but that’s something that we might do later.”

Krishna won’t say how much the Fort York project costs, but did say more than a million dollars has been spent to develop the software and create the content over the past few years by his six-person development team, working with other companies as contractors.

The virtual reality technology, which is slated to launch later this year, is part of a larger initiative that includes a new visitor centre.

There are still many issues to work out, such how much it might cost a Fort York visitor to rent one of the devices — or what device might end up being used. The company is working with Tango tablets, but one option might be using Google’s Cardboard — a cheap headset made of cardboard that could hold a Samsung Note 4 or a Google Nexus 6 phone — for the public.

Google itself has taken notice of Awe’s technology and is using it as part of Project Tango, the Mountain View, Calif., company’s augmented reality project. Krishna is presenting Awe’s technology at Google’s I/O conference this week.

“Awe’s work is an exploration how these new technologies can be used to enhance educational experiences,” said Larry Yang, who is the Senior Product Lead for Project Tango at Google. “We believe this is an important genre for our new platform.”

According to recent analysis, the market for virtual reality is expected to explode over the next few years. A report from U.K.-based analyst KZero says that from a total estimated revenue in 2014 of about $90 million, virtual reality is projected to hit $5.2 billion by 2018.

For purists, augmented reality is usually a device that shows the real world with some computer generated additions, including images or sounds.

Virtual reality is usually a more immersive, computer-generated environment, which has been very buzzy the past few years, with most large electronics companies in a race to launch virtual reality headsets. Many are expected later this year or early next, like Facebook’s Oculus Rift.

But for Awe, the technology is less about science-fiction gaming and more about pragmatic application.

“What I’m interested in is content that bridges the physical and the digital,” said Krishna.

“It’s that real application of content and the world that is exciting to us, and it relates to people who are in motion. It’s the opposite of television.”

How Awe is different

One thing that sets Awe’s technology apart is that it is markerless. For virtual or augmented reality experiences tied to physical places, there often needs to be a sign or some kind of trigger that is a cue to serve up images or information.

In a place like Fort York, a site that also serves other purposes, such as holding concerts, permanent physical signs as triggers are not possible.

Rather than using GPS co-ordinates, Awe takes detailed topographical and other 3D maps of the area, which are then loaded into their computer, giving Awe a detailed virtual model of the entire site.

“If you do it with GPS, there’s plus or minus 3 metres of error, so you can’t do an exact registration (of the spot),” said Naimul Khan, Awe’s research and design manager and lead scientist. Awe’s system is more accurate.

Visitors with the headsets move their heads in the direction of a virtual marker at the site, triggering an animated clip from the Fort’s history.

Approach a cannon, for example, and the invisible marker launches an animated clip showing the cannon in action during a battle. You can also make the animated characters respond to your commands.

It’s that awareness of the environment and the bridging the real and virtual worlds that likely drew Google’s interest.

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