Light City Exhibit Offers Look at Bygone Relics Through Augmented and Visual Reality

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Slightly more than two years ago, Islamic State militants stormed through Mosul, Iraq, destroying priceless artifacts that its members had deemed “idolatrous.” This week at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor, Light City is offering a chance to visitors to peer in at these lost relics using augmented and virtual reality tools.

The exhibit, called “Case Study: A VR Museum,” has two sections: The first lets users hold an iPad and examine an item that appears to be right before their eyes using its camera; the second has users don a virtual reality headset that puts them inside of a temple-like setting and employ controllers to “hold” artifacts that were destroyed.

“They no longer exist in the real world,” explained Ashley Molese, festivals coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), of the items in the exhibit. “These new technologies are ways that we can help continue to preserve that legacy.”

BOPA, specifically Molese and assistant Juansebastian Serrano, worked with 3-D printing restoration project Rekrei, Baltimore-based Look on Media and BaltiVirtual and The Economist Media Lab to bring the exhibit to fruition.

In the first section, one can see 3-D printed objects – mallets, sculptures, stone carvings – sitting on pedestals without any additional ocular technology. Rekrei helped create likenesses of the objects and develop “trigger” images, used as backdrops, to display the printed artifacts on screen by gazing at another 2-D image.

In one example, the exhibit used a lithograph of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a historic African-American-run Fells Point shipyard founded in 1866, as a “trigger” image for a mallet that appeared on the iPad’s screen.

A recreated mallet in 3-D printed form.

“In our research, we wanted to find an image that would represent what the intention of the object was, so we worked with the Maryland State Archives to source this image,” she said.

The second section with the VR goggles was more immersive. (For those who haven’t put on a virtual reality headset, the experience can be a bit jarring (it was the first time for this writer.)

With an HTC Vive headset, a pair of controllers for virtual hands and noise-canceling headphones, users can step inside a museum-like video game, grasp at a relic, place it on a pedestal and have a voice from above narrate its origins and other details as the artifact floats in front before them.

This made for an up-close-and-personal lesson on a few of Mosul’s departed lost artifacts, right on the lobby floor of the Columbus Center.

The exhibit is operational during all Labs at Light City this week (lasting through Saturday). In the few days it’s been up, Molese said the feedback was generally positive. One user, a teacher in Parkville, asked how she might be able to use the same technology with her elementary schoolers.

Looking ahead, Molese said she hopes BOPA can bring the same AR and VR experiences to other events around town.

“We want to hear from the community to see what else can be preserved and what ways we should be thinking about preserving these legacies, whether that’s elements of Baltimore architecture that were destroyed because of development or gentrification, or former objects and venues and icons that have been lost to time, just because Baltimore’s 300-plus years old,” she said.

The Columbus Center is located on Pier 6 in the Inner Harbor, at 701 E. Pratt Street. The exhibit 

Ethan McLeod
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