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Using augmented reality to enhance the North East’s cultural heritage

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By Rachel Makin, PhD researcher, Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism

Tourism destinations are facing challenges in creating unique and authentic experiences, which are an ever-increasing motivator from more sophisticated travellers with higher expectations.

A man using a smartphone

Organisations and destinations need to prioritise visitor experience more than ever in order to thrive. Augmented reality (AR) is playing a small part in helping to achieve that. Although the technology is still under-utilised in our part of the country, there are examples of how it is being put into practice in the North East to try and attract visitors.

So, what is augmented reality?

Augmented reality is technology which enhances physical environments by superimposing digital data on top of a real-world view. Like many technological advances of the 21st Century, augmented reality had its early uses within the military, before applications were developed for use in medicine, education, engineering and even space exploration.

2016 saw the launch of Pokemon Go in the consumer gaming sector. The game uses AR technology to make the small monsters appear in the real world.

A female using Pokémon Go

More recently, an app has been developed using the same technology to help tourists explore the Vatican City. The tourism industry worldwide is now applying the technology to many different aspects such as learning, information provision, tourist engagement, translation, historic reconstruction and much more.

A female using an augmented reality headset

Augmented experiences in the destination

AR can allow tourists to interact with heritage in a way that has not been possible before, such as recreating past historical experiences, which would otherwise be impossible.

Durham Cathedral was one of the locations chosen to be included in the development of an AR app by England’s Historic Cities in 2017. Information markers located around the Cathedral reveal augmented reality displays such 360-degree panoramas and 3D reconstructions, when scanned using the app on a smartphone. The project was aimed at attracting a new, perhaps younger, more digitally-focused audience, by offering another layer of engagement.

The app was developed with the help of funding from Discover England Fund. Without this sort of funding, it can be a challenge for smaller heritage organisations to invest the resources to use this technology.

Immersive educational experiences

A recent exhibition in Stockton-on-Tees, to commemorate the centenary of the end of WW1, highlighted the educational benefits of using AR. Paintings in the exhibition, when recognised by a provided tablet, allowed users to see animations and listen to narratives to bring to life iconic war poetry. AR provided the ability for visitors to learn about artefacts using animation and storytelling to tell an immersive story, therefore enhancing their experience and engagement.

Increased social sharing

Aside from engaging in interactive and authentic experiences, tourists today have the need to circulate the latest news and pictures from their travels to their social followers. The Forestry Commission, developed a Gruffalo Spotters Trail, which was implemented at Hamsterley Forest in County Durham. Aimed at families with children, AR was used to help visitors to the forest explore and engage with the surroundings by identifying markers to search for. When the clues are scanned using the app, the characters from the popular children’s book are brought to life. Secondary to this, the app provided the ability to take photographs with the virtual characters, providing a quick way for users to portray themselves enjoying life to their social networks.

Future development

These examples showcase the potential of the technology in helping to revolutionise the way North East destinations are experienced. The benefits are clear to see but the challenge will come from whether organisations can build financially-viable business cases and have the expertise within them to support the development of such technology.

Rachel is a PhD researcher in the Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Events at the University of Sunderland. She also has extensive industry experience working in marketing and events management in the heritage attractions sector since 2007. Learn more about her work on ResearchGate or read more about studying Tourism, Hospitality and Events at the University of Sunderland.

Published: 26 November 2018