Digital Humanities: Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants

Period of Performance

3/1/2010 - 2/28/2011

Funding Totals

$49,885.00 (approved)
$49,885.00 (awarded)

Historic Overlays on Smart Phones

FAIN: HD-50995-10

City of Philadelphia, Department of Records (Philadelphia, PA 19107)
Joan Decker (Project Director: October 2009 to June 2011)

The development of prototype mobile phone applications that would allow users to see historic photographs of Philadelphia in the actual city locations by pointing the phone camera at the building, a technique known as "augmented reality." This project draws on the extensive records from the NEH-supported database.

This project will leverage recent developments in smart phone technology to create prototype augmented reality applications to overlay historic photos on the current urban landscape. The project will use the City of Philadelphia existing web-based archive of historic photographs available at Imagine pointing a smart phone at an historic building, and then being able to view archival photographs of the same building overlaid on the camera screen. This innovative application will enable students, architects, historians, tourists and other users to view available historic photos of selected sites in conjunction with a contemporary camera view for a learning opportunity that transcends the traditional classroom. The resulting applications will target the iPhone and Android phone platforms and will be provided as free downloads through the respective app stores, enabling Philadelphia to share its rich heritage in an entirely new way.

Media Coverage

The Philadelphia Department of Records and Azavea Release White Paper on Augmented Reality Technology Research Along with AR App for Historical Photos (Media Coverage)
Date: 5/17/2011
Abstract: The Philadelphia Department of Records (DOR) and Azavea announced the publication of a free white paper that summarizes their research on the use of mobile augmented reality techniques for enhancing digital access to historical and cultural resources. This paper accompanies the release of a prototype augmented reality application for (, the online database of historic photograph and map collections from the City Archives, the Water Department, the Office of the City Representative, the Free Library, and the Library Company of Philadelphia, originally built by Azavea. The app is available at no cost for both iPhone and Android smart phones.

When the Future Meets the Past: Using Augmented Reality in Cultural Institutions (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Deborah Boyer
Publication: CrossTies
Date: 9/10/2011
Abstract: Using technology to provide access to the collections held by cultural institutions is nothing new. Using augmented reality, a technology often equated with science fiction movies, to provide that access, however, is much newer. But how does augmented reality actually work? What are the benefits and challenges of developing an AR project? Can this technology be used effectively in cultural institutions?

Discover Philadelphia's Past on Top of Its Present with PhillyHistory AR (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Adriane Goetz
Publication: Layar Blog
Date: 5/20/2011
Abstract: The newest historical addition to the Layar platform, PhillyHistory, uses Augmented Reality to merge Philadelphia’s past with present. Using content from the Philadelphia Department of Records’ online database (, you can access nearly 90,000 historic images of the city, 500 of which are pinned to the current landscape in virtually their exact location in AR. Of those 500 images, 20 also contain additional information about the places in the photos created by the editors of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia as well as local scholars.

Transmedia Futures: Situated Documentary via Augmented Reality (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Gary Hayes
Publication: Personalize Media
Date: 7/20/2011
Abstract: Creating a historical record of your locale using this method is really the first step for many, although still tricky, mapping images in a perspectively correct way to modern buildings and places allows an immediate connection for the user to ‘change’, how the world around them is connected to the past. Seeing people walking past a brand new (back then) building a hundred years ago directly in front of you, and imagining what they were thinking, what there lives were like, the stories they left behind is a humbling experience.

Augmented Reality by and Azavea Launches on iPhone, Android (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Dan Newman
Publication: Technically Philly
Date: 6/8/2011
Abstract: In February 2010, the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities awarded the Philadelphia Department of Records a Digital Humanities Startup grant to investigate the use of augmented reality applications for mobile devices. The prototype application, AR by, is available for free download on iPhone and Android. It allows users to view historic photographs as 3D digital information overlaid atop their current location using the camera, GPS and many other sensors that came stock with nearly all consumer smartphones.

Philly’s High Tech Augmented Reality App (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Vince Lattanzio
Publication: NBC 10
Date: 7/23/2011
Abstract: A new app by the folks over at Philly History can show mobile users what the City of Brotherly Love looked like in the past in augmented reality.

Associated Products

Seeing Philadelphia's Past in Augmented Reality (Article)
Title: Seeing Philadelphia's Past in Augmented Reality
Author: Deborah Boyer and Andrew Thompson
Abstract: In February 2010, the Philadelphia Department of Records received a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities ( ) to research and develop a prototype mobile AR application that would enable users, via their smartphones, to view historic photographs of Philadelphia as overlays on the current urban landscape. By using the geographic coordinates tracked as part of the digitization process, the DOR hoped the prototype could accurately place the images in 3D space and create an immersive user experience. The idea was that users could walk down the street and watch as historical photos of the immediate area appeared on their smartphone screens, as if they were fixed-position “billboards” superimposed on the phone camera’s view of the current locations.
Year: 2011
Primary URL:
Access Model: open access
Format: Magazine
Periodical Title: GIS Lounge
Publisher: Caitlin Dempsey Morais, Editor

Augmented Reality for Cultural Institutions (whitepaper) - (Report)
Title: Augmented Reality for Cultural Institutions (whitepaper) -
Author: Deborah Boyer and Andrew Thompson
Abstract: In spring 2010, the Philadelphia Department of Records (DOR), an Azavea client, was awarded an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant to research the use of mobile augmented reality technology in displaying a large database of historic photographs. They partnered with Azavea to conduct the research and create a prototype smartphone application (iPhone and Android) that enables users to view historic images as overlays on the current landscape. In creating the application, we drew from the huge collection of nearly 93,000 images available on, a previous project we created with DOR. But how to actually make it happen? We approached application development with many questions. Is augmented reality (AR) a useful method for showing the history of Philadelphia and helping users to see the connections between the past and the present? Is AR technology advanced enough to make this type of application possible? Are smartphone networks fast enough? Is the phone able to pinpoint a user’s location accurately enough to load images of that location even in a crowded urban setting? For the answers to these questions and many more, check out our research results in our "Implementing Mobile Augmented reality Technology for Viewing Historic Images" white paper.
Date: 04/01/10
Primary URL:
Access Model: open access

Implementing Mobile Augmented Reality Applica¬tions for Cultural Institutions (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Implementing Mobile Augmented Reality Applica¬tions for Cultural Institutions
Author: Deborah Boyer and J. Marcus
Abstract: In Spring 2010, the City of Philadelphia Department of Records received an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant to investigate mobile augmented reality technology for use in displaying overlays of historic photographs on the current urban landscape. The project utilized the resources of, a collaborative online database of historic photographs and maps from five Philadelphia area institutions. This paper will examine the state of mobile augmented reality technology and its current and possible applications for use within cultural institutions. Through an exploration and evaluation of the successes and challenges of the Department of Records’ augmented reality project, we will investigate how this technology can be applied to other archives and museums.
Date: 03/31/2011
Primary URL: