His vision began with a book. The scent of old leather, paper, and ink wafted through the air as he rustled the yellow, aged pages of the book with purpose. He found himself flipping back and forth between the book and old historical maps, when he suddenly looked up. Thump, the book closed. An idea was sparked. 

The book was on the battle of Second Manassas. Todd Ogle, executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Experiences and Simulations (ARIES) at the University Libraries, wasn’t able to easily transfer the mental model of what he was reading to the actual landscape. Ogle wanted to bring historical documents, photographs, and map information, which is typically held in libraries and archives, to life, in-situ, on a battlefield of the American Civil War. 

Ogle is now making his idea a reality with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a collaboration with the Pamplin Historical Park and its National Museum of the Civil War soldier in Petersburg, Virginia; Virginia Commonwealth University; and a distinguished group of humanities and digital media-focused advisors in Civil War era history and education.

The team is led by Principal Investigator Paul Quigley, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History and director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Virginia Tech collaborators include Doug Bowman, the Frank J. Maher Professor of Computer Science; Zach Duer, an assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts; Corinne Guimont, digital scholarship coordinator in University Libraries; David Hicks, a professor in the  School of Education; Kurt Luther, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of History; and Thomas Tucker, an associate professor in the School of Visual Arts.

Other collaborators include Kathryn Shively, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Tim Talbott of the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

“For me, the wide variety of collaborators on this project really makes this unique,” said Guimont. “Not only do we have people from multiple departments involved, but we are also working with folks at other universities as well as the team at Pamplin Historical Park. Everyone brings different experiences and perspectives to the work and how it can benefit the users. I feel like I have already learned a lot from everyone involved in this project.” 

3D aerial scans by the team captured this garden and cabin.
3D aerial scans by the team captured this garden and cabin. Provided by Todd Ogle.

Together they are designing an augmented reality application to enhance visitors’ understanding of Civil War history. Augmented reality is a great way to render real-world information and present it in an interactive way. Objects are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information making virtual elements become a part of the real world. It can be applied to historical artifacts around the world and is a way of engaging the public with collections at any library in the future.

Included will be period photos and illustrations, map information translated to the ground, points of interest, videos, animations, text, and audio content using augmented reality to help people understand history within its physical context.

“So one thing we’re going to do is allow visitors, through augmented reality, to play with different fortifications and ‘add’ them to the landscape,” said Quigley. “Then they will receive audio or visual feedback from historians, who will provide more information. And living historians will portray characters from the era — men and women, Black and white people. We can make it so much more interactive than a simple video.”

Pamplin Historical Park contains four museums, three historic homes, and the Breakthrough Battlefield, site of the critical Union action on April 2, 1865, that led to the Confederate evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and subsequently to the war’s Union victory. 

“At the time, 15 years ago, smartphones didn’t exist and mobile augmented reality was still in the research and development phase of its life cycle,” said Ogle, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate from the Virginia Tech School of Education and his bachelor’s degree from what is now the Virginia Tech School of Communication. “Even now, sharing hidden histories like this is not widespread even though the technical affordances exist. I’d like to push this out to as wide an audience as possible.” 

The grant funding will allow the team to consult with all collaborators as they develop an application that will provide technologically innovative and engaging ways for park visitors of all ages to better understand the latest historical research on several topics that are not always prominent in public presentations of Civil War era history. These topics include environmental and military history; the war’s impact on households, civilians, and enslaved African Americans; the nature of historical sources; and the construction and reconstruction of historical narratives over time. 

“My research and the ARIES program is focused on the role of immersive experiences in supporting situational context for learning,” said Ogle. “So it is gratifying to see it coming to fruition after all this time.”

3D scanning captures the geometry as well as the color information of objects and structures on site.
3D scanning captures the geometry as well as the color information of objects and structures on site. Provided by Todd Ogle.

“I always think of the library as a place where different disciplines and departments come together,” said Quigley. “Ogle’s ARIES program is really important. He is doing these kinds of immersive experiences and he works closely with students and faculty around the university. And he’s really into history!”

“I’m always fascinated by what can happen when people from a variety of disciplines come together to create something to benefit the general public,” said Guimont. “This project will be beneficial for visitors of the Pamplin Historical Park in how they’re learning and understanding significant historical events. But this could also provide a model for how other historical sites could enhance their visitors’ experiences.”

This project is the beginning of what Ogle hopes will be a multi-year, public-private partnership that brings together technology, humanities, and learning science scholars to bring the past to light in new and engaging ways.

Written by Elise Monsour Puckett; reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Imagine, the University Libraries at Virginia Tech magazine