Ever wanted to travel back in time to your favorite city and imagine how it actually existed hundreds of years ago? Or hear the stories of a city's residents in their own words while going for a stroll through historical neighborhoods? The new age of augmented travel, which integrates geo-location technologies with historical maps and rich multimedia content into a sort of geo-temporal human Web, promises the global traveler (as well as the armchair historian) the opportunity to interact with the physical surroundings of cities around the world in fundamentally new ways. The latest entrant into the world of augmented travel is the highly-acclaimed HyperCities, which won a Google Digital Humanities Award in 2010.
Who hasn’t wondered at one time or another about the stories and historical backgrounds of the world’s most famous cities? That’s the basic premise behind HyperCities, a joint project between UCLA and USC that is as much as a research and educational platform as it is a travel experience for 20 different cities around the globe. The researchers launched the HyperCities project with the guiding principle that “every past is a place,” and that participants should be able to explore, learn and interact with layered histories of cities and spaces. By blending the stories of inhabitants with historical archival maps, and then overlaying them on top of contemporary satellite photos of a city, it's possible to trace the historical arc of a city over time.
Most recently, the HyperCities Egypt initiative experimented with augmented storytelling by overlaying real-time Twitter updates on a map of Cairo, giving viewers a birds-eye view of social media activity on the ground. Another notable success was HyperCities Rome, which enabled people to visualize statues from Roman antiquity on historical maps of ancient Rome.
Now that geo-location has become a fixture of everyday digital life, thanks to the proliferation of smart phones, it’s perhaps not surprising that maps have emerged as one of the single most important tool for online storytelling. (Still unconvinced? Check out how Google Maps is telling the story of a charming little fixer-upper in suburban Islamabad). Think of oral stories superimposed onto specific destinations or routes. Every Past is a Place, meaning that content can be used to weave historical stories out of news clips, archival photos, 3D reconstructions of famous buildings, user-generated maps, oral histories, family genealogies and government data.
What's fascinating is how similar types of augmented reality technology are already making their way into the mainstream travel industry. Lonely Planet, the popular publishers of travel guidebooks, is already experimenting with Augmented Reality guidebooks for smartphones. Other companies, such as Layar, have launched augmented reality browsers that overlay text on top of physical, real-world environments, in order to give travelers the ability to see names of nearby restaurants, get brief wiki-like summaries of historical destinations, and access information on-the-fly through the mobile phone browser.
Which is not to say that everything works quite the way it should right now with these hyper-augmented technologies. It’s certainly hard to enjoy the local environs with your nose stuck in a guidebook - and the roaming charges add up for all that Internet connectivity. Conde Nast Traveler, for example, recently ran a less than favorable review of augmented reality technologies, arguing that the time, money and effort required to get mobile phone apps to work as planned were often too much for any but the most intrepid travelers.
However, it's easy to see how these augmented travel technologies will have an impact on the way we think about cities. Ultimately, augmented travel will transform the way humans interact with and experience places. It will change the richness and variety of our tourism experiences. They say that history is written by the victors. Not any longer – now history has the opportunity to be told by anyone with an Internet connection, a mobile phone and a decent map.