I always think of Los Angeles in the present, if that makes sense. As if the Los Angeles that I know is the only Los Angeles that ever was or will be. But, that’s not true. It’s often easy to forget that the very ground beneath our feet has been around long before me. This soil has been passed from generation to generation, changing a bit with each pocket of passed time. My daily trek to class was once perhaps a paved road for horse-drawn carriages. The parking lot behind my apartment, a drinking hole bubbling in the Jurassic heat. The spaces that house my favorite restaurants in Downtown were once the favorite shops of people thrice my age. The places I traverse every day, regardless of how I know and engage with them now, were all once an integral part of history in one way or another. I’ve found some joy in uncovering these small pieces of the past recently, through the lens of Extended Reality technologies.
Extended Reality is just as it sounds. It is the universal term encompassing several different tools we can use to digitally maneuver what we experience- in effect, we are extending our own perception of reality. This includes AR, VR, and MR. Augmented Reality, or AR, lies underneath this umbrella- extending reality through our phone screens.
Augmented reality is a combination of the virtual and physical world. Looking through your phone screen, virtual objects are placed in the space around you, effectively augmenting- or adding to – your reality. This technology was popularized in entertainment by the game Pokemon Go- it was an easy way to immerse app users in the story and make them feel like the characters were really there in the space with them. Once XR developers tapped into this intriguing way to mix digital and physical, several found ways to use AR technology to bring the past to life.
Native Angelenos have all been to the LACMA at some point. It’s the go-to “what’s there to do in LA” spot. What’s more- it used to be a tar pit. The gooey, black liquid would suck in any prehistoric animal unlucky enough to fall in. As such, there have been a countless amount of sabertooth tiger, wooly mammoth, and giant sloth remains found behind the museum. This gave rise to the La Brea Tar Pits Exhibit. Scientists from the Natural History Museum, La Brea Tar Pits, along with some researchers from USC (including yours, truly) collaborated to create animated models of these prehistoric animals that, through the use of Instagram or Snapchat, users could see walk through the La Brea outdoor exhibit, what used to be their home. People could point their phone up and see a to-scale wooly mammoth walk right next to them. It served to elevate the entire museum experience, to truly immerse the viewer in a time far before them. In addition, there was an AR educational experience offered at Pit 91, an active excavation site outside the museum. I got to try it myself, and was amazed by the level of interaction it brought to a formerly basic experience. I was able to “dig” up fossils with my virtual shovel, and keep an inventory of them, in case I wanted to look into the specific information about one animal.
AR has opened up opportunities for building empathy through historical storytelling as well. The Japanese American Museum’s experience entitled “BeHere” integrates AR to bring a new perspective to historic photos that documented the forced removal of Japanese Americans during World War II. Artist Masaki Fujihata looked through both UCLA and the Japanese American National Museum’s archives of historic photos from 1942, depicting Japanese Americans as they boarded transportation heading to assembly centers and camps, right here in Los Angeles. Fujita had actors dress up and recreate these photos; he used volumetric capture technology to encapsulate the scenes in 3D and program an AR app using these models, all based on real people. Fujihata placed a huge emphasis on engaging the impacted community. Many of the volunteer actors were actually Japanese Americans who had experienced the camps themselves in the 40’s. Upon downloading the BeHere|1942 app, I was able to uncover these gripping scenes. It’s one thing to walk through a museum and observe pictures from behind the stanchions, but AR gave me the opportunity to be a part of the photos. I felt as though I was inside the moment, with these people.
Augmented Reality experiences have also been used to highlight communities within Los Angeles that have been talked over or forgotten, and ecosystems that have vanished altogether as the city grows. OxyArts of Occidental College has decided to commission AR artists to create accessible monuments to commemorate these peoples in a new and engaging way. Artist Joel Garcia collaborated with Meztli Projects to create a new monument honoring the Native Peoples of Los Angeles in place of the Junipero Serra statue on Olvera Street that was toppled in 2020. The experience is location based, and takes place through the user’s phone. When pointing my phone towards the pedestal, a native Tongva song begins to play in my headphones as an oak sapling sprouts from the center of the monument, surrounded by neon rings that radiate constellations. Garcia describes his art piece as “a memorial of a tree that was never there and imagines one that could be there to suggest a future in which the land is restored and cared for by the Tongva community” (Astrorohizal Networks). Creating monuments through Augmented Reality not enables them to be shared beyond the local community (thanks to the internet), but also ensures that these memories last indefinitely, preserving voices that the writers of history have often edited out of the story in favor of those with privilege.
I think that over the course of this exploration, I’ve come to understand the layers of LA in a new light. I’ve read my history textbooks and articles online, but nothing compares to staring face-to-face at history through the use of AR. Los Angeles has taken on many forms throughout its history, and has been home to countless stories, including the likes of everything from saber toothed cats to Native American tribes to immigrants from all over the world. The line of storytelling continues with our generation, but it doesn’t stop there. Myself, along with every other Extended Reality creator- in LA and beyond- have the opportunity to preserve history through an immersive and empathy-engaging medium. My hope is that we use AR to bring the past, present, and future right into the hands of our children, so that they may have greater access to an all-encompassing understanding of this planet. For me, that journey begins here in LA, with my iPhone in hand, backpack strapped on, and eyes wide open, ready to take in all that the Augmented Reality world has to offer.