J-School Team Produces ‘Time Travel’ App Prototype

  • By Newmark J-School Staff

Imagine walking anywhere in New York, taking out your smartphone and seeing your screen transform into a window back in time. Imagine then tapping on images of times past – and getting pop-up blurbs that offer insight into bygones eras.

That’s the vision behind You Are Here, an immersive journalism experience that uses augmented reality to tell New York stories, melding past and present from a street-level view.

You Are Here is the brainchild of J-School Interactive Program Director Sandeep Junnarkar and News Director Jere Hester. The pair recently created a prototype, backed by a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development program, a partnership with the NYC Media Lab.

“As journalists, we’re storytellers at heart,” said Junnarkar. “We saw an opportunity to use changing technology to tell the story of the changing city. We want to help show people where they fit into the larger, ongoing narrative of New York.”

Junnarkar and Hester only had to look outside the J-School’s doors to decide the subject of their first You Are Here test case: Times Square. They mined photo archives to create an experience exploring the Crossroads of the World’s legacy as an iconic intersection of culture and commerce.

The duo team got plenty of support: J-School Chief Librarian Barbara Gray helped connect them to vintage pictures – and to New York Times archivist Jeff Roth (“Jeff is a New York treasure!” Hester said). Photojournalism Program Director John Smock shot a 360-photoscape of Times Square. Ian Burns, a developer who works with Unity, a platform normally used for video games, was hired to build the augmented reality experience.

Junnarkar and Hester picked photos from four periods – the turn of the last century, the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. They plotted the images along the current-day photoscape and made them sortable by decade. The pair also researched and wrote historic nuggets aimed at putting each picture into context.

“I’m a native New Yorker and like to think I know everything about New York,” said Hester, a former Daily News city editor. “But I learned something new everyday – about the city’s history and about the storytelling possibilities offered by AR.”

Junnarkar and Hester were among the grant recipients who presented prototypes during an April 21 ceremony at NYU’s Kimmel Center, capping an intense three-month development period that included frequent meetings with mentors from Verizon and the NYC Media Lab, as well as sessions with an interdisciplinary group of grantees, most of them graduate students from computer science and design programs.

Junnarkar and Hester plan to refine You Are Here as they explore various development and funding opportunities via connections made through Verizon and the NYC Media Lab. They also came away inspired to create a class on AR uses for journalism.

“The mentoring and feedback we got were incredibly valuable,” Junnarkar said. “We’re planning to forge ahead and share new lessons as we go on.”