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Can Augmented Reality Change How People Experience Cities?

As two cities — Buffalo, N.Y., and Fairfax, Va. — embark on projects to implement augmented reality technology, questions arise on the effects the new tool will have in their communities.

Graphic of a hand holding a smartphone up in front of a city skyline.
Cities — like Buffalo, N.Y., and Fairfax, Va. — are beginning to use augmented reality to enhance the way residents and visitors interact with the urban landscape around them. The efforts are part of a larger move to boost tourism, the economy and overall community experiences.

Augmented reality can enhance visitor experiences by overlaying imagery or information about a place on the screen of a smartphone. Imagine a historical site brought to life through virtual interaction — perhaps a historical figure describes the importance of the area or a virtual docent gives a tour. One such example is a project in Charlotte, N.C., that will soon provide visitors with a historic perspective of razed Black neighborhoods through a virtual replica.

In Buffalo, an effort to reimagine the visitor experience relies on an app to show off the area’s history at signs posted throughout Olmsted parks. The initiative was led by the nonprofit Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy (BOPC) and supported by Market New York through the state’s Division of Tourism, as part of the Regional Economic Development Council initiative, and M&T Bank.

The app, redeveloped by Newbird Design, was launched in June 2021 as Olmsted App 2.0. It offers an AR portal through the signs at the parks, giving visitors a glimpse of places that no longer exist, effectively preserving these sites through technology. Both AR points of interest, Lake View House at Front Park and the Quarry Garden at Delaware Park, offer insight into historic details of the parks’ original designs that no longer exist physically.

According to BOPC’s director of development and communications, Catie Stephenson, part of the purpose of this app is to create an attraction that would drive tourism to Buffalo from other parts of the state.

While COVID-19 changed travel and delayed the app’s initial launch, she noted that there has also been increased traffic to parks, which may factor into the project’s impact within the community.

The sign at Delaware Park.
The sign at Delaware Park offers an augmented reality view of the historic Quarry Garden.
Image courtesy of Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
“We wanted to provide a portal to the past, so that people could see these landscapes in real time and compare them to the landscape that we have here today,” Stephenson explained.

Meanwhile, in Fairfax, the city’s Economic Development Office and Parks and Recreation Department are behind an effort to use the technology in two ways.

Developed with Engage ARt and EXAR Studios, the project will offer two separate experiences to those that download the smartphone app: one is a technological twist on the shopping experience in Old Town Plaza, while the other is focused on animating a local statue. The project was made possible by a grant through the Smart City Challenge.

Matthew Easley, program manager for Fairfax’s Economic Development Office, expects the app to be live by fall 2021 and said that one of the key goals of the project is to attract students from the nearby George Mason University.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to do; we’re trying to get students to come into the city as much as possible and spend their money,” explained Easley of the intended economic impact.

To do this, the AR project uses part of a brick wall that will have an augmented reality feature, Easley explained. Visitors can download an app and point their phone at the wall to get information about up to five businesses in the area.

Easley described these as “easter eggs,” and as they pop up, the user can catch them to learn more about the businesses. Potentially, there may be collaboration with these businesses to offer discounts through the platform.

As Fairfax’s cultural arts manager of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Megan DuBois, explained, AR creates interactive sites in the city that she hopes will engage young people.

Augmented reality is also helping to bring attention to the art in Old Town Square, specifically a statue of a girl with a dog. The app will bring the bronze sculpture to life, animating the dog, DuBois explained. Users can watch the dog play fetch or even dig up the nearby historic garden.

She said that AR was a way to add an interactive component to an everyday thing — “magic” one can experience in the city. “I think that [AR] is the direction that the arts are going, and I’m really excited to be on the starting path for it in Fairfax,” DuBois said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.