Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Another Move, Honoring a Traitor, and Augmenting Reality

Late in posting again, but I have a good reason. That’s right, the Roving Historian has moved again. Back to the Cumberland Valley! Sheila, Meaghan, Sydney and I are now in the Hagerstown, Maryland area. Although we enjoyed our time there, the “Tip of the Mitt” was a little too quite, too cold, too far from the archives, and too far from the history that we enjoy. We have now more or less split the distance between the National Archives (NARA) in College Park and the Army Heritage Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, PA. I’ve only been here three days and I’ve already made the time to ride my bicycle on the C&O Canal path at Williamsport, MD. More on the local history and some pictures of this area to follow soon.

My friend Paul over at History Delivered put up an interesting post. He made us aware of an article on the Smithsonian website about how an American was the force behind a memorial in London that honors Benedict Arnold. Paul asks us how we feel about honoring a man whose name is synonymous with traitor. Can a person do something so bad that it trumps the good? In this case we’re talking about Arnold offering up the plans to West Point to the British versus his leading Continental troops to victory at Quebec and Saratoga. I won’t repeat Paul’s argument…I hope you’ll visit his blog and read it for yourself. Nevertheless, I’ll add to the questions he poses and ask if a historical figure can be remembered as so great and good that we fail to study and learn from their faults and foibles as well?

Several weeks ago, I received an email from Jeff Mummert at the Civil War Augmented Reality Project. Jeff asked me to review their project on this blog and I am honored to do so. I have never met Jeff or anyone else connected with the project but I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by what they are working on. Of course I share their passion for history, and as some of you will recall, my “day job” for the last 14 years has been running a computer consulting and website development business (http://www.ridinthewave.com/).

They have a Kickstarter site to help with the funding for their project. I highly recommend that you visit the site to find out what this project is all about. In essence, they are developing software to run on tablet PCs that will help students learn about historical sites, while standing on the ground. For example at Gettysburg, the student will look out at the terrain in front of them, then on the tablet PC they will see the same view with unit dispositions superimposed on that sight picture. This video (also on the Kickstarter site) can better explain what they’re doing:



I think this technology is fascinating. It also has some amazing potential for learning. However, and don’t take my opinion as a criticism of the work that the Civil War Augmented Reality Project is doing, I don’t agree that this technology is best serving the public, as it is meant to be used “on site.” After all, the target user of this technology is already there, on the site. While the student or visitor has their attention drawn to the technology in their hands, will they be more likely to miss the thrill of being on the site? What about the teacher, docent, park ranger, or guide who has developed their knowledge and honed their presentation to bring the history alive? Don’t we owe them an attentive audience?

I’m a big fan of technology. However, we often ask, “Can we?” and forget to ask, “Should we?” or even, “Do we need to?” After 14 years in the business, I have seen this many times. Sheila and I often talk about the availability of our historic sites and archives. We are so pleased to see that historic sites like Gettysburg and large museums like the Smithsonian are free. Anyone can go to NARA and look at the nations documents…for free! The sarcastic punch line is always the same… “You just gotta get here.” I think we should be using our technology to assist the students who do not have the means to travel to the sites, to the museums, and to the archives. In a perfect world, a person with few resources could go to their public library, sit down at a computer, and via the Internet obtain an image of any document, or virtually walk through any museum or visit any historic site. But there’s no taking away from it Jeff, what you guys are working on is COOL. ;-)