The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a $98,500 grant to an interdisciplinary team led by Virginia Tech to create an augmented reality program prototype that brings Civil War history to park visitors’ fingertips. Experts from Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Pamplin Historical Park, and its National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia, are involved in the project. 

From multimedia-guided interpretations of documents to videos of historians sharing diverse perspectives, Pamplin Historical Park visitors will interact with historical lessons and stories of the site to inspire deeper empathy, curiosity, and understanding. Through augmented reality (AR), they’ll engage with stories of the people — both soldiers and noncombatants, such as the enslaved people of the area - their roles, their environment, the fight, the grit, and their beloved families. 

“I’m passionate about visualizing the past, being able to see what is no longer to be seen, and gaining a perspective on how people once saw and experienced places that we see differently today,” said Todd Ogle, executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Experiences and Simulations. “I believe that using AR for this purpose is among its greatest potential uses.”

Previously, the team received a $30,000 grant to begin mapping out the project and analyzing what could be done. The new 2023-25 $98,500 grant is to continue the development and create an actual prototype of the augmented reality application. Next, the team plans to apply for another grant to move the project into full production. 

The team is led by 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 Todd Ogle, executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Experiences and Simulations at the University Libraries; Doug Bowman, the Frank J. Maher Professor of Computer Science; Zach Duer, assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts; Corinne Guimont, digital scholarship coordinator in University Libraries; David Hicks, professor in the School of Education; Kurt Luther, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of History; and Thomas Tucker, associate professor in the School of Visual Arts.

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

The team will use digital recreations of historical landscapes, interactive 3D artifacts, short expert videos sharing compelling stories and key concepts, and digitally annotated historical documents and photographs. 

“These techniques will convey historical lessons in bite-sized segments, grounded in compelling human stories, artifacts, or environmental features, using technologies that will draw different kinds of users in,” said Quigley. 

The project marries new technologies with the latest historical scholarship on themes such as the environmental history of the Civil War, African American experiences of slavery and freedom, and how the crisis of the Civil War transformed gender relations and definitions of the household. 

“We hope that augmented reality will unlock the stories of these lived experiences while connecting them to the landscape within which they occurred,” said Ogle. 

This project allows Virginia Tech to demonstrate its commitment to its land-grant mission by supporting lifelong learning, helping the state’s economy through heritage tourism, and providing communities with new ways to understand their histories and their relevance today. “It is a truly transdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together the disciplinary tools of many different areas to create something that is more than the sum of its parts,” said Quigley.  

One interesting challenge the team has faced is the difficulty of keeping up with changing technologies, with which different users have different levels of comfort. “If we do go all the way through to the production phase grant, we’ll probably finish the project around 2028,” said Quigley. “Along the way, we have to try to design an experience that will work with the devices that are in use in 2028 and beyond. Will that be smartphones, tablets, AR glasses, or something else? And we also have to make sure that everyone from school field trips to a history buff of retirement age will be able to get the most out of the experience.” 

“Finding the right mix of accessibility, historical accuracy, and production value while working with the constantly changing technology landscape is an ongoing challenge,” said Ogle. “The opportunity is great enough to make the effort worthwhile.” 

Quigley said there are immense benefits to understanding Civil War era history in all its dimensions, such as learning about how African Americans secured freedom and the impact the war had on individual lives, American politics and culture, and the natural environment. “It’s wonderful to be able to use engaging techniques to teach these subjects to audiences of different ages, different levels of interests, and different cultural backgrounds. There's something magical about developing a cool AR experience - a real ‘wow’ factor.”