Mobile app designed to help people visualize what was at New Philadelphia

Claire Martin, a New Philadelphia Association board member and research associate at the Illinois State Museum
Posted: Jul. 16, 2014 10:56 am Updated: Aug. 6, 2014 11:15 am
Jon Amakawa, a professor at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Mass.

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

BARRY, Ill. -- Beyond an informational kiosk, the New Philadelphia site is bare of remnants from the past.

It takes imagination to "see" what Free Frank McWorter's town, the first platted by an African-American, looked like as it grew into a home for blacks and whites on the prairie beginning in the 1840s.

Imagination soon could get a helping hand from technology.

Jon Amakawa, a professor at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Mass., is creating a self-guided interactive tour that will be available as a mobile app. Amakawa is a 3D artist who specializes in creating interactive museum exhibits and educational media, as well as being an assistant professor in video game design.

"The idea is that people can download the app while at the site or before they visit the site, then walk through the path that's already set up," he said. "We're going to create sort of information ‘hot spots' to see visualizations of what used to be there and get information."

Amakawa calls it augmented reality.

"It's allowing people to view what's there, the real place itself, then augment what they're seeing with 3D visualizations or information," he said. "It's almost like you can look at the place and see the possibilities for it in the same way Free Frank McWorter might have."

It's a perfect approach for sharing information about the New Philadelphia site, which already offers signage and a self-guided walking tour.

"There's not a lot to look at at New Philadelphia, but we also don't want to be doing anything that is going to obstruct the landscape and the view," said Claire Martin, a New Philadelphia Association board member and research associate at the Illinois State Museum. "This will be a way of helping people visualize what was there without actually having something physical on the site more than what we have already."

The first phase of the project, slated to be done this year, calls for at least one completed 3D location, likely the Louisa McWorter home or the schoolhouse.

"This is basically using gaming technology for history. That has a lot more appeal to the younger audiences," Martin said. "It's going to help the older ones, too. Some people can stand in an empty field and see what it must have been like, and others just see an empty field."

The app takes what's already known about New Philadelphia and presents it in a new way.

"The Louisa McWorter house we know quite a bit about. They excavated quite a bit, and we have a fair amount of documentation on it," she said. "It was more or less in the center of town, probably always the most substantial building in town. On the tax records, it was always appraised at being worth more. People connected with the house had significance to the town."

Much less is known about the actual schoolhouse beyond its history.

"It was a centrally important building," Martin said. "The schoolhouse would be not only where children went to school but a place any community meetings took place, church services, funerals."

A $10,000 grant from the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and $4,000 in matching funds from Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative funded the first part of the project. Martin said the Network to Freedom put the association in contact with Amakawa, who did a similarly-styled Underground Railroad project for the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

The app will have references to the Underground Railroad, but it won't be the app's main emphasis.

Amakaw said the New Philadelphia project allows him to use the augmented reality approach for the first time to allow people to actually be at the location and add on this 3D reconstruction. The New Philadelphia story, Amakawa said, has wide appeal for its themes of seeking freedom and settling the West.

"It really kind of helps you connect the dots between the past and the present. It's kind of a continuum, and in some ways, this app will help in that same respect allowing people to appreciate the present state of the historical landmark and also be able to appreciate how it might have looked in the past," he said.