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Learning History with Location Based AR

Imagine 6000 acres of meadowlands occasionally crisscrossed with stout wooden fences and narrow roads. Apart from some monuments and statues, there is little here to indicate the crucial role these softly rolling hills in Central Pennsylvania played during the Civil War. Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Seminary Ridge…on these solemn landmarks the Confederate Army battled the Union Army at Gettysburg for three days, resulting in 50,000 casualties.

All of us at HitPoint Studios wanted to tell the story of what happened at this battle, generally considered the turning point in the Civil War. We had previous experience creating location-specific games, (including a game for Dreamworks and their Train Your Dragon franchise), and felt the time was ripe to combine geolocation, AR, and gamification to create a rich interactive experience at the most-visited battlefield in America.

Then Niantic announced the Beyond Reality Developer contest, and we pounced. It was the opportunity we were looking for. Niantic’s goal was to encourage developers to use and give feedback on their platform while exploring new use cases and gameplay mechanics. As one of ten finalists, HitPoint’s goal was to create an experience at Gettysburg that would engage the almost 1,000,000 annual visitors in new ways. (You’ll have to read to the end to find out if we won!)

Turning those empty fields into compelling interactive moments, while still maintaining its solemnity…it was beyond hard. We started by determining which Points of Interest (POIs) like monuments to include on our virtual map. We used geolocation to track player positions in real time. As the player walked towards one of the POIs, then selected it on the map, they were able to play mini-games and receive badges and points. Players could play solo or collaborate with others on a team to earn a high score on the leaderboard.

Visiting some of the monuments prompted a “citizen archeology” game, in which the player used a fun detector tool to locate pieces of an authentic artifact, e.g., Winchester Rifle. Beeping sound effects and an on-screen meter helped guide the player to the underground item. Once the dig site was located, the player could use a virtual pickaxe and brush to dig up, clean, and assemble the buried artifact.

But a true understanding of Gettysburg can’t be achieved simply by providing information and facts. We thought long and hard about how to invoke the emotion and pathos of the battle. Our solution was to incorporate a soldier on the virtual map who marched along a set route at certain times. If the player moved close enough to him as he passed, he gave the player a letter from an actual combatant. The letter unfolded and was read aloud, with 3D text appearing in AR on the horizon. “A fierce battle was fought here today…”

Once the letter was read, the soldier gave the player a virtual rose. The rose could be placed anywhere as a tribute; its GPS location was saved permanently. Players were able to see their own glowing rose as well as anyone else’s rose at any time.

Evaluating and testing an app when 3000 miles away from the location it was designed for was challenging. We “spoofed” monuments wherever we could around our office, (sidewalks, hallways, etc.) but that obviously wasn’t the same as actually being there. Fingers crossed, we visited the battlefield with the indefatigable Garry Adelman, Director of History and Education at the American Battlefield Trust, and had a blast trying it out with some enthusiastic visitors.

So how did HitPoint do in the Niantic Beyond Reality Developer Contest? We learned so much about the player’s expectations, what they found fun (and not fun), the critical importance of UI in augmented reality experiences, what’s good, (and what’s still baking in the oven), with the Niantic platform, and much more. But sadly, we didn’t win the contest. Not discouraged in the least, we’re now busily planning which historical and cultural locations to focus on next. Stay tuned!

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