AR and Archaeology: Opportunities, Challenges and the Trench of Disillusionment

I have just come back from giving a guest seminar to the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton and thought I would put up a post with the gist of it. It was really an introduction to Augmented Reality in Archaeology, but was also inspired by the recent article in Wired. In his article Clark Dever explains that AR is currently languishing in the Trough of Disillusionment.

The (Archaeological) Hype Cycle

The (Archaeological) Hype Cycle

What this means is that according to the Gartner Hype Cycle AR as a technology has already reached it’s peak of marketing, expectation and excitement and hasn’t really delivered much. Instead of providing the world with a technology to allow the seamless integration of the real and the virtual, we are left with a few applications that provide a way to overlay virtual information onto a video screen, which are mostly used to direct us to the nearest Starbucks.

I am afraid that I have to agree with Clark Dever, and I feel seem the same about AR. I follow a large number of AR blogs and tweeters and all everyone seems to report on is new apps that basically overlay info onto a screen with no relationship to the real world. A good example is Falcon Gunner, a Star Wars based app which places you in the seat of a gunner on the Millennium Falcon. Whilst it is a really fun game [who doesn’t like shooting down TIE fighters!?] the ‘AR mode’ has absolutely no connection to the real world and basically overlays the game with a transparent background so that it looks like TIE fighters are flying over your sofa. While this is kind of interesting for about 5 minutes, what I really want is the TIEs to interact with the real world – I want them to hide behind the sofa and fly out at me – or fly into a cupboard, hide and wait until I’m not looking and then attack me. I want to feel like I am part of the Star Wars galaxy and it is part of my front room.

Falcon Gunner app

Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner (

Heritage applications are bread and butter for AR, one of the first things that comes to mind when talking about AR is how cool it would be to see what the world used to look like. Indeed, archaeological AR apps are actually some of the better apps that are trying to meld the virtual with the real. For instance, the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app does a good job of pulling in virtual content (in their case pictures/paintings) and overlaying them into their ‘real’ place in the world.

MoL Streetmuseum (image from:

But, again, this app just overlays the image in (roughly) the right place – there is no way to enter into the image or interact with it, or have people walking around it, through it, behind it. Instead it is really the equivalent of using your GPS to query a database and get back a picture of where you are. Or indeed going to the local postcard kiosk buying an old paper postcard of, say, St. Paul’s Cathedral and then holding it up as you walk around the cathedral grounds.

In my opinion, AR will continue to languish in the Trench of Disillusionment until we can address the following issues:

  1. The technology needs to be used intelligently.Adding on an ‘AR view’ to an app that simply overlays the app on your video feed is not enough. In addition, simply putting GPS locations into a ‘3D’ space and giving them an icon is equally flawed. Especially when those locations are far away and should be obscured [occluded] by the buildings in the way. It is much easier to navigate to these things using a map (saves you trying to walk through buildings) – and I am not entirely sure how much the AR mode adds to it. We need to think of ways that AR is going to add information or provide a new type of information, not just be a different (and less useful) way of displaying the same old information.


    Layar's 'AR View' - note the points that are on different streets (some kilometres away), and should be occluded by the buildings.

  2. The AR algorithms need to recognise the real world. Sorry to keep banging on about this, but if the AR content is not respecting the real world (i.e. being occluded by it or wrapping round it or interacting with it in some way) then you lose the point and the feel of the augmentation. We should be using the real world as a template for the AR experience, taking as much of it as possible and then gently melding the virtual world with it – not harshly slapping virtual content on and simply making it move with the motion of the accelerometers. Advances are currently being made toward this, via the use of depth cameras (such as the Kinect) and also computer-vision based algorithms (such as SLAM and SfM). Metaio, the developer of the popular Junaio AR app, are clearly making big leaps in this area as this video shows. We are a little way off this being commercially available, but it shows that the big companies are finding ways to make the meld more seamless.
  3. AR needs to be seamless (and cheap!). The current normal delivery of AR requires either a head-mounted display (HMD) or a smartphone/tablet. Whilst an AR experience will always need some kind of mediation in order to provide the experience, these devices need to be less bulky and also cheaper in order for them to become accessible to a normal person. In archaeology, the majority of the AR apps are likely to involve tourism, or visits to archaeological/historic sites or museums and therefore the delivery technology needs to be cheap and robust, and ubiquitous enough to enable the AR content to be experienced. Perhaps the fabled real-life Google Googles that have been promised by the end of the year will go someway to making this happen.
  4. We need to wrest the technology away from advertisers. Up until now, a lot of AR content has just been a way for marketeers to sell us stuff. That’s fine and its the way of the world. In fact it obviously drives a lot of the technological advances, because after all who is paying for all this stuff? But we need to be careful that we are also doing good research with AR that does not just have the aim of making the killer app to sell loads of stuff. As archaeologists we are in a unique position where we can advance knowledge and use AR to show people our research in-situ or use it as an aid to field practice, rather than just to present out results. As our discipline moves towards attempting to gain a more embodied experience of the past, AR is the perfect technology to aid in that embodiment and to let us experience visions/sounds/smells of past events in the places that they happened. It can be used to help us think about the past as we are excavating it, and may even aid in/change our interpretations as we go along. We don’t have to be led by the nose with the technology and instead we need to bend it to our will, make use of it intelligently for our discipline. Otherwise we are simply going to end up with Matsuda’s dystopic vision of AR Advertising Hell.

While in danger of pushing the metaphor of the Archaeological Hype Cycle to breaking point let me sum up:

AR is like one of those archaeological excavations where you are promised the world and then when you break ground it doesn’t quite deliver. You see the amazing Barrow of Inflated Expectation that promises archaeological finds and fame beyond your wildest dreams, you engage the press, start a website, hit every social media site possible and get everyone (including your funders and institution) excited beyond belief. Then you cut a slot through through the barrow and realise that it isn’t filled with the grave goods of a lost Bronze Age King, instead there is very little in the Trench at all. The press get bored, your website hit-rate plummets, the previously frequent on-site blogging reduces to once a month and your institution starts worrying about your REF submission. You languish in your trench, wondering how you can rescue the project. But then you remember you have taken whole load of environmental samples, the few scraps of wood you recovered are good enough for dendro-analysis, you analyse the complex stratigraphy very carefully and realise it is a unique sequence… 2 or 3 years of careful post-excavation analysis by just a few team members follows, the hard-graft of making the project really work begins to come to fruition and you are left with a mature project that has real results and is pushing the field of archaeology forward. That is where we are with AR now. We need to get our heads down and do that hard-graft, start thinking what we can take from the hype of AR and build it into something that works, helps us during our field practice and dissemination and hopefully pushes archaeological knowledge forward, rather than just being more eye-candy.

Please leave some comments if you can think of or have examples of applications for AR in archaeology or heritage studies that could get us out of the Trench, it would be great to get a discussion going. I have uploaded an HTML version of my Southampton seminar here. Please note, it was exported from Keynote, and therefore the embedded movies only seem to work when viewed in Safari.

  1. Just to give you guys an idea as to the kinds of things being dsesucisd at Archaeology Conferences, here’s an abstract for a Forum at the upcoming Society for Historical Archaeology Conference: ()Into the Cloud: Archaeology and Media in the Borderless information WorldOrganizer(s): Dennis I. Aig (Montana State University)Chairs(s): Dennis Aig (Montana State University)Panelist(s): Dennis Aig (Montana State University), Annalies Corbin (PAST Foundation), Sheli Smith (PAST Foundation), Keene Haywood (New Media Consortium), Katherine Martell (Montana State University)The explosion in web-based communication, audiovisual access, and social networking during the past two decades has fundamentally changed the practice, review, and discussion of archeological field work and reporting. There is also a new imperative in the research equation: academic and funding agency pressure to make both process and findings publicly accessible. Uplinking a film or video is no longer adequate. Scientists are expected to allow colleagues and interested non-specialists to “experience” the research through all stages from field work to publication. This forum will examine these developments with an emphasis on the following: new media options and adaptability; impacts on field work, conservation, analysis, and publication; the significance for archeology of the crisis in scientific communication; funding implications; and possible fundamental changes in scientific method. Media from high definition through iPhone apps will be dsesucisd in the context of archaeology’s evolution. Both terrestrial and underwater issues will be dsesucisd.

  2. Of course! Grey liaurttere in archaeology is primarily made up of archaeological reports that are conducted my private archaeology firms, museums, and so on. They are the reports that are completed after excavations, which present te data, what was found, and basic interpretations. This lit is most commonly the product of projects falling under section 106, which dictates that construction projects that use federal funds must under go an archaeological survey. Cultural resource firms conduct this work, write up a report, submit it, and move on to the next thing. Sometimes they’ll publish an academic paper, most times not. So, gaining access to this grey lit is always an issue for archaeologists. In Maryland, there are repositories for this liaurttere, at some archaeology labs and certain libraries, but it’s often a chore figuring out what’s there, what it’s about, and so on. Creating digitized, online database would be the best solution So there are certainly things to talk about!