In early April 2013, digital journalism professor Robert Hernandez, of the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Los Angeles, was driving by L.A.’s Central Library downtown while thinking of ideas for his experimental augmented reality (AR) storytelling and journalism course when he had an aha moment: Why not focus a project on augmenting the Central Library?
As a result of this epiphany, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) partnered with Annenberg to “augment” the historic Central Library building, bringing visual, video, and 3-D experiences to the art, architecture, and collections.
Hernandez’s students gathered content for and developed the AR experiences using the Metaio Creator AR platform, with the assistance of Neon Roots app developers and, of course, Central Library staff.
He sent an email to me and the director of the Central Library Giovanna Mannino to pitch his plan. Several emails, conference calls, and dozens of class sessions later, an AR app was born: the first ever known AR app collaboration between a university and a public library.
The results of this innovative experiment would answer the question: Could an app using augmented reality be created by nondevelopers? Hernandez’s eight students—a mix of graduate students and undergrads—ran the gamut from tech savvy to story savvy. “Profe,” as Hernandez is affectionately called, was ultimately concerned with telling stories. The technology used would be the conduit for relating those stories in a novel and exciting way.
I was designated as the class liaison and tasked with guiding the students toward people and material resources, as well as offering any other assistance required during the duration of the semester.
Learning the library
The class met in one of LAPL’s meeting rooms every Tuesday from 6:30–8:30 p.m. As an introduction, I set up an in-depth Central Library tour with one of our docents, Kenon Breazeale, who provided an incredible level of depth and detail about the art and architecture at Central Library. Many of the stops on the tour would later be featured in the app.
Hernandez decided to get a couple of Metaio licenses for the project, so that the students could gain experience developing on an AR platform. They used Metaio’s Creator, which can design channels for the company’s Junaio browser or output a stand-alone app.
After the tour, the questions started coming rapid-fire. I invited a few staff members to join in the next class session to speak about their experiences working at LAPL and give the students a “time machine” look into the past.
Our first guest was retired principal librarian Helene Mochedlover, who fascinated the students with her no-holds-barred stories of the fire of 1986, the pay equity struggle for female librarians, and library work in the analog age. She was formally interviewed for the app, as was Glen Creason, LAPL’s resident map librarian. At one point, Mochedlover was asked to name her favorite corner of Central Library (the students were eager to pinpoint possible visual markers). She pooh-poohed the question and said she actually disliked the building—drawing chuckles and gasps—and reminded the students that without incredible staff, no library ever comes to life.
The next major class component was having students and library staff brainstorm and pitch possible AR experiences. The cofounders of Neon Roots were brought on board to provide more critical app development in exchange for user testing of their AR beta content management system (CMS). They provided the students with a crash course in agile scrum training in order to get time line, workflows, and data deliverables set, giving them an invaluable experience in managing project development and deadlines. In the end, students were able to illustrate great experiences though Creator, overcoming some significant limitations. The Neon Roots team could then launch the final, public, polished app.
Hernandez and the app developers gently led the brainstorming session, encouraging students and staff to float ideas without considering whether the AR aspect was doable. It was decided content would be collected under the following rubrics: history, art and architecture, children, and rare books/special collections.
Students began their content collection and research in earnest. Central Library staff were encouraged to drop in on class sessions to provide feedback and guidance. Students built relationships, interviewed staffers, visited subject departments, and even interviewed the artists whose work is featured at the Central Library.
Making their marks
The students also worked to identify possible visual markers—those permanent fixtures in the library that would serve as AR experience triggers when a smartphone is pointed at them and a photograph taken.
Choosing visual markers is not as simple as it sounds as some do not easily lend themselves to initiating an AR experience. For example, in the rotunda of Central Library there are four large murals by artist Dean Cornwell that the students initially chose as one of their “art and architecture” markers. However, the murals are situated high on the walls, making photographing them difficult. Lighting was a major reason that the murals were not used. Depending on the time of day, the sun’s rays would throw off the marker. Another challenge was the children’s section, where loitering by adults without accompanying children is discouraged, for obvious reasons. The students created small boxes decorated to look like children’s books as visual pointers, which were then placed near the children’s reference desk.
Students also chose to augment some items from the Rare Books Room, including a 1884 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, as well as a colorful book of insect illustrations. After photographing these titles and even doing some 3-D modeling, the students were confronted with the issue of what visual marker to use. The Rare Books Room is open by appointment only, and there is no easily accessible signage. An exhibit case next to the highly traveled rotunda area became the marker. Mock-ups of four of the books and a QR code in the display case would guide visitors to those experiences.
In December 2013, the app was ready for beta testing. A large group of library staff—mostly librarians—were eager to test the app in real time. Beta testers loaded Junaio onto their smartphones and tablets and scanned a QR code to initiate the app. Hernandez gave an overview and then piloted the testers through each experience. Tech artist BC “Heavy” Biermann was on hand to film the process and interviewed testers at the end of the session.
For some, loading the app was very slow; it used up too much juice and bandwidth. Smartphone batteries were drained—a critical consideration. Suggestions were given and noted. The experiences, when initiated, played out beautifully. Staffers who had never seen AR in a library setting were thrilled. The students were happy to witness the fruits of their labor.
The class wrapped up in December 2013, but the development of the app by Neon Roots continued. The firm released a free and final version this year, which has been downloaded 500 times, and an Android version is coming soon.
It was a wonderful experience not only to be part of the AR app development but to share the stories that make up the fabric of our library. The creative collaboration was exhilarating for library staff, who had a chance to explore their own garden and revisit their rich history.
As we left the Rare Books Room after an intense weekend work session, one of the students turned to me and said, “I never knew how much amazing stuff you have at Central. I can tell you, this is an experience I will never, ever forget.”