Augmented Reality Does Time Travel Tourism

A telescope so powerful you can see into the past. Kind of.
A telescope so powerful you can see into the past.

Great scott! Augmented reality is taking tourists and thrusting them back in time to experience the sights (and sometimes sounds) of the ancient world. Using a camera and video screen, AR blends live and digital images in real time, giving you the sense that artificial objects are appearing in the physical world. In China, France, Switzerland, Germany, and many other locations, reconstructed images of past landmarks are being displayed overlapping with the current appearance giving tourists the sense of traveling back in time. We’ve got a bunch of videos for you after the break, so check them all out.

We’ve seen augmented reality used in a variety of applications, from futuristic baseball cards to taking a tour of the starship Enterprise. Many of these uses have centered on entertainment, but some have started to focus on providing helpful information to answer questions. Where can I find a restaurant? What will this car look like in red? How big is this toy when assembled? Historically accurate depictions of the past for tourists falls somewhere in between the two. It makes me wonder if AR is still trying to find a ‘sweet spot’ in the world, some field of application (gaming, map augmenting, marketing, etc) where it really excels, or if augmented reality tourism is a sign that AR is set to invade every conceivable field it can.

As with so many historic sites across the world, the Yuanmingyuan (poorly translated: Garden of Perfect Brightness) in Beijing was lost due to armed conflict and looting. Constructed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this imperial garden was destroyed in 1860 during the second Opium War. Without high resolution photography, China’s current citizens had to rely on paintings and sketches to see how the beautiful gardens once appeared. No longer. A team at the Beijing Institute of Technology created a virtual reconstruction of the gardens and a coin operated viewing platform for tourists to use to see it. They are even working on a sleeker looking model to replace the current one.

The Cluny Abbey in France has one of the simpler AR systems for tourist time travel, it’s pretty much just a giant screen that acts as a “window to the past” as you look through it. Millions of visitors come to the abbey each year, so this system may be the single most used augmented reality device in the world. Fitting for what was once the largest church in Europe. Check out this video of the screen from

Speaking of millions of visitors, the Louvre in France also has an augmented reality touring system. While not strictly focused on placing the viewer in the past, it does discuss history and provide insights into the collection. Produced by the Louvre and AR company Metaio, we could see many more such tours in prominent museums around the globe:

In Berlin, IGD Fraunhofer and Instant Reality have created an augmented photo system that allows you to use your iPhone or UMPC to capture images of historic landmarks and then see how they changed over periods of time. A central server connects the smart phone user with a database of photographs covering decades of the city’s growth. IGD has also constructed a satellite map of the city which can be toured in a similar manner:

If you want a full AR walking tour, visit Basel Switzerland. Australian TV show, Beyond Tomorrow, picked up on an augmented reality tour there a few years ago. Both the show and the tour seem a little cheesy, but they’re worth a look. Skip ahead 30 seconds if you want to avoid the segment intro:

While some of these time traveling tourism experiences are several years old, it’s still too early to tell if they will grow in popularity. Certainly augmented reality is gaining ground and expanding into new platforms. It’s important to note that these AR tours appeared on a wide range of hardware, from telescope-like viewers to flat screen monitors, head mounted displays and hand held devices. Smart phones and video game platforms like the Nintendo DSi could put AR in every one’s grasp very soon. Such portable systems could allow tourists to ‘jump the rails’ and explore on their own. Wait a minute – individuals freely exploring the past? We may need a Time Cop.

[screen capture: Beijing Institute of Technology]

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