For the most part, as a historian who focuses on the Roman world I do not have the luxury of viewing ancient structures as they appeared 1500 to 2000 years-ago. Of course there are ruins of civic and religious structures that can still be seen all over Rome, but up until recently, accurate representations of their former grandeur could only be imagined by tourists or scholars walking about the eternal city. Luckily that is about to change because AG (augmented reality) technology has given us the ability to experience the past while still living in the present. Current technologies that most of us already own like our mobile phones can be used to download programs that give us a glimpse as to how AG works.
The use of a mobile phone or tablet to view images or objects is great, but this type of AG is rudimentary when compared with that being developed using Google Glass. Contact lenses are also in development that will have the same functionality as wearable computer glasses.
What does this mean for historians? Well, besides being really cool technology, it allows historians to view natural or manufactured spaces as they appeared at differing points in time. This is important because historians can then experience history in a way not previously possible allowing them formulate new ideas and make connections. Literary accounts and archaeological evidence has allowed for the recreation of buildings or events on paper, but these recreations typically lack the immersive qualities that AG brings about. Historians will have the opportunity to see things through the eyes of ancient Romans or Civil War soldiers. Perception creates the new reality and seeing is believing. There are a couple of obstacles like the challenge of fixing computer generated objects to the real world or creating an environment that is visually plausible to viewers, but these issues aren’t anything that can’t be overcome. AG will be a fantastic tool for historians.
For a glimpse of AG being utilized in cultural heritage see,
Portalés, Cristina, José L. Lerma, and Carmen Pérez. 2009. “Photogrammetry and augmented reality for cultural heritage applications”. The Photogrammetric Record. 24 (128): 316-331.