Timescape Kolkata: on the reality of augmenting reality

Following the launch of Timescape: Kolkata and publicity pieces focused on the final interface, it is important to turn to the app development and acknowledge the team and trials involved in this process.

Martin Winchester, Experimental Officer in Design Computing at the University of Liverpool began the process of researching potential app platforms, selecting a series of appropriate high quality representations and liaising with Jadavpur University to locate these views in the contemporary city.

Similar cityscape digital humanities projects helped harness our ideas, ambitions and provided exemplary formats. Those developed by the Museum of London, Cinematic Geographies of Battersea research project and the recently launched Singapore Time Walk, demonstrated the flexibility of the augmented reality format which was chosen.

Augmented reality, distinguished as ‘ambient informatics’ by the theorist Adam Greenfield, mediates between a user’s contingent reality and a computer conceived environment. [1] This augmenting of reality contrives to blend streams of information, such as images, sounds, films with the lived environment, creating an organic, seamless hybrid experience. Greenfield continues that this process will ideally develop into a process as free from ‘the Web’s creaky armature of pages, sites, feeds and browsers’ as possible, to appear as Greenfield continues, ‘just there’.[2]

Creating this ‘just there’ proved to be challenging. Our determination to create an entirely open source product, available for iOS and Android, demanded adaptability, patience and foresight. Whilst coding the data from Liverpool was relatively straightforward, navigating the digital environment and finding a suitable semi-propriety app template, was time consuming.

Martin Winchester described the process,

“The project was particularly challenging given the multiple platform requirements, the ever changing nature of web technologies and in one case, what can only described as a Patent Land Grab which had little or no regard for the technology’s existing user base.”

Further research identified two other platforms, Metaio/Junaio and Layar. Having a more customizable interface combining XML, HTML+CSS3, Metaio/Junaio was chosen, developed and successfully tested on site in India. However, the project hit further coding twist and turns and this platform had to be abandoned when it became reported via the online community, that the company had been sold to Apple.

The digital environment is vulnerable to these take-overs. Larger companies tend to acquire and adjust app platforms as they gain in popularity. Apple’s take over of Metaio/Junaio, which will render all support and publishing options for the app obsolete by 15th December 2015, necessitated another re-evaluation. Consulting the active online community, Layar was selected on the basis that it has made a commitment to open source access to its App. A number of other projects have made a similar move.


Layar software

After this unexpected and unavoidable delay, a revised methodology was adopted to make sure we could continue to develop the app rapidly. Using the open source Content Management System provided by WordPress, a separate website was created. The project webserver, held at Liverpool, hosts a JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) file compiled of codes relating to a number of POI (Points of Interest). These were generated to match the photographic archive provided by the British Library.

Each POI is comprised of a set of latitude and longitude coordinates, location title, a brief 20-30 word description of the site and a web link to the WordPress installation. The same server holds the WordPress installation which contains extended information about the locations as well as video and audio files. This entire JSON file is published on the Layar website as a ‘layer’ accessible using the Layar browser.

Following the construction of this backend system and extensive onsite research and testing conducted by our team members at Jadavpur University, Kolkata the final app ‘Timescape Kolkata’ evolved. Incorporating over 100 points and historic images of Calcutta made by Frederick Fiebig, W.G Stretton and Company and the reputable Bourne and Shepherd, the app dips into the past and contextualizes the city today. This ambitious project, intends to re-imagine, open and excite the city and its population.



[1] Adam Greenfield, Mark Shepard, Urban Computing and Its Discontents (The Architectural League of New York), Situated Technology Pamphlets, No. 1, pp. 10/11, available at http://urbanscale.org/downloads/ST1-Urban_Computing.pdf, accessed on 19 August 2015

[2] ibid


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: