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California State Parks Tap Immersive Tech to Share Heritage, Nature

The California State Parks system recently unveiled a new virtual and augmented reality app for visitors to dive into the lives of new cultures while exploring California’s natural landscapes.

The home screen of the California Department of Parks and Recreation website.
Virtual and augmented reality is becoming a powerful tool to bring a new dimension to the visitor experience in California’s state parks.

This week, the California State Parks announced the launch of Virtual Adventurer, a new mobile app that uses augmented and virtual reality technologies to more fully experience the parks and their diverse histories.

The vision behind the new application was inspired by the University of California, Merced’s World Heritage partnership between Assistant Professor Nicola Lercari and UC Merced students in 2016. The partnership led to the creation of the Bodie 3D Project, which evolved into the current Virtual Adventurer app available today.

“We first began by developing and testing ways to bring Bodie State Historic Park and its history to life using augmented and virtual reality technologies on a mobile app platform,” Leslie Hartzell, California State Parks cultural resources division chief, said. “The goal was to create an innovative, interpretive program for park visitors to support self-guided visitor experiences as they explored the park, learned about changes to the cultural and natural landscapes over time, and shared diverse stories by bringing Native voices and other communities’ experiences to life.”

From storytelling to holograms, to 3D images and reconstructions, the app’s capabilities give the agency and its parks the option to build out new digital experiences for a variety of historical perspectives that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

“You can go back in time to see changes in the natural landscapes and biodiversity of plants and animals and witness how different cultures have managed these resources. The app also supports and enhances the department’s Reexamining Our Past Initiative by developing content for parks that tells a more complete, accurate, and inclusive history of people and places,” Hartzell said.

The initiative is part of a concerted effort by the agency to work with community partners and universities to ensure that the State Parks’ educational programs and exhibits are inclusive and culturally diverse.

According to a recent press release, during one particular immersive experience, the public can download and travel through Coyote Canyon in today’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with Maria Jacinta Bastida, an Afro-Latina woman traveling with the Juan Bautista De Anza expedition, or see Chinatown re-emerge from the sagebrush at Bodie State Historic Park.

“What we learned along the way is that these are not places only of the past; they are places that continue to have deep meaning and importance to people to this day,” Hartzell added, about the development process.

The app is also designed with accessibility in mind. Users will have access to Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant PDFs, audio descriptions, audio captioning, high-contrast colors, dyslexic font, and more to ensure the highest level of access possible to interpretive and educational content for all park visitors.

The agency hopes that visitors who engage with the new technology will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the connection between history, culture and nature.

As new technology pathways emerge, the state parks organization is already working to expand the application’s current capabilities to hopefully continue to push the limits of the imagination for visitors.

“The department has several other parks like Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (SHP), Fort Ross SHP, La Purísima Mission SHP and Salt Point State Park that are already developing content for the app,” Hartzell said. “Some of the parks that launched are already working on adding new content and expanding the visitor journey. As new technologies for mobile applications develop, they will be incorporated into Virtual Adventurer, including the use of multiple languages and translations.”
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.