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timescape:kolkata

Standing on the Esplanade crossing, looking down Lenin Sarani with the “Tipu Sultan” mosque on our left, Kawshik Aki pressed his shutter. Bringing his camera down from his eyes he looked at the preview, shook his head, took a step to the left and clicked again.dharamtola_smallMeanwhile I stood facing the opposite direction trying to ensure that bus-drivers (who had little patience for a couple of people standing in the middle of the road photographing a notoriously chaotic crossing of no apparent photographic value) did not run us over. I passed the Samsung tablet to him and we compared the shots. It was not exact but it was close enough. The precarious geo-coordinates were recorded, and we hastily exited the scene. The photograph we took could never be exact because Frederic Fiebig, who had shot and carefully hand-tinted the original from the 1850s, did not have to dodge irate vehicles and could stroll into positions on the roads that spell certain death today.

Not all the locations were this hazardous, but replicating the old positions of the photographers was often excitingly challenging. The accuracy of the geo-coordinates is essential for the ‘Timescape: Kolkata’ app to function satisfactorily. The idea initially was that the Layar App would help the phone recognize the location using two sets of data—image recognition and global positioning system. (The former has not been as successful as we’d like it to be, but I’ll get to that later.) The app identifies where the user is on the streets of Kolkata and shows points of interest within a user-defined radius.

The size of the images that appear on the phone are distance-sensitive. For instance, if the user is standing in front of the Calcutta High Court, the nineteenth century photograph of the High Court will appear largest. Along with it, they will see buildings in the vicinity, such as the Town Hall or the Raj Bhavan in varying sizes depending on their proximity. A tap on the image will reveal information on the building, and there is the possibility of adding various layers of information and multimedia.

 Gathering geo-coordinates meant having to trace the footsteps of the nineteenth century photographers whose images were made available by the British Library. Photographs by W.G. Stretton, Frederick Fiebig and Bourne and Shepherd constitute the greatest share of images. This was a fascinating task for several reasons. First of all there is the antiquarian’s curiosity—could we retrace the exact routes that these men took? If we did get close to their positions, would we see what they did? How have the scenes been altered—or do the points from which they took the photographs still exist?

The first site we chose brought home many of these difficulties, but it also gave us some cues about how we could continue to work things out. The Calcutta High Court had obviously been photographed from somewhere along the Strand. A number of tall buildings have all but obscured the view of Walter Granville’s grand Gothic edifice. A sliver of the steeple inspired by the Ypres Cloth Hall could be seen from a particular angle. It seemed to fit in because it was directly in line with Chandpaul Ghat, one of the popular landing ghats in colonial Calcutta—logical that the photographers would want to stand in the shade while assembling their heavy photographic equipment and tripod.

While photographing the Writer’s Building we saw that the photographer’s point of view was at an elevation. The only building that looked as old was the one that houses the West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (diagonally across St. Andrew’s Church). Getting permission to get in wasn’t easy, but it provided an instance of a yet un-chartable aspect of mapping—the altitude. But the strange thing is that the number of trees at least in front of these buildings seem to have increased, even though it is an easy bet that the overall greenery in the city has gone down drastically.

Speaking of trees, one of the happiest realizations came when Aki and I were trying to replicate the photograph of the Town Hall. The exact position is beyond reach now because it is part of an enclosed space right now. There are two trees, however, in that older photograph that exist to this day! Perhaps we need to make a public note of this.

For each difference that comes to light, there is also a startling continuity between the old and new Calcutta/Kolkata. The Chitpur Bridge photograph initially seemed like a challenge. There seemed to be no access along the nullah. On getting on the bridge, however, we found an apparently abandoned platform a few meters to the left of the bridge. We managed to scramble through some garbage and dust and upon reaching the platform realized immediately that we had found the one which was used for the older photograph by Frederick Fiebig.

The challenges were mostly technical, although in some cases where buildings had disappeared altogether, a fair amount of research went into establishing the contexts for the buildings in order to understand which direction it faced or the angle from which the photograph had been taken. The process of testing involved a trial-and-error method. We tried to report back to Martin Winchester of the University of Liverpool the problems we were facing, trying hard to communicate the exact nature of the particular glitch. With great patience, he awaited each report and tweaked the programming according to every minor problem. The glitches are often site-specific. The slightly unreliable service of the satellites above the city of Kolkata may also have something to do with this. But hopefully as time goes by, and more people use the app and offer feedback, we will be able to keep modifying the app and work towards a perfect model.

You can visit the project website for help with installation: http://www.time-scape.org/

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.

ARAPPLAYARimage

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