Heritage tourism turns to augmented reality with PastGuide

Sightseeing, which usually involves visiting monuments and historical sites, is rarely associated with new technologies. However, the implementation of interactive features in more and more museums is a sign that there is indeed room for technologically enhancing the historical experience for both educational and entertainment purposes. But no one has yet taken the idea as far as the Polish start-up PastGuide. Welcome to the augmented reality of monuments — a project with the potential to change the way we interact with historical sites.

What is PastGuide?

Heritage tourism is unique in that even though it’s about the past, admiring things that are old and getting even older, it’s not archaic in itself and is not bound to become so. People love visiting historical places and in the future, as things inevitably get older, there will only be more of it. And thus there will be a fair amount of money for all sorts of individuals to grab in the process.

For those who are wondering how new technologies can change the way people enjoy historical tourism, PastGuide may be the answer. It’s a full-fledged attempt to create an app that lets you see the way monumental places looked many years ago. It employs geolocation, detailed 3D design and the idea of augmented reality to display the past world on a smartphone or tablet, constantly changing as you move. And the past world is hardly a static space to explore — it’s a vibrant place full of people of the past and riddles to solve, delivering education and entertainment in the package. See PastGuide in action in this official teaser video.

To find out how the idea of PastGuide was first conceived, at what stage of development it is and just how much effort and struggle it took and is still taking to make it happen, read our interview with PastGuide’s CEO Jan Filipowiak.

Web.gov.pl: How was the idea for PastGuide first conceived? Did you realize that you had the tech to do it, or did it all start as an idea that could actually work out business-wise?

J.F.: First off, there was my personal interest in history. Half of my family are professional historians and archeologists and I’ve spent my childhood surrounded by family debates and artifacts in museums. I didn’t realize how much it influenced my choices in my adult life but I’ve found myself swallowing books, movies and travelling places where history lives. I went my own path and created an IT company, but then at some point I’ve connected both experiences and that’s how the idea for PastGuide was born. We’ve just starting testing out our business model so it’s too early to say anything definite, but the technology is definitely mature enough.

Speaking of tech, it all seems quite complicated when you say 3D, geolocation, mobile and augmented reality in one sentence. Is PastGuide a tough product to implement? What’s the hardest part, the design, which obviously must be very detailed, or maybe syncing all of its features?

A bit of everything I guess. It’s not the easiest app to implement; in fact many of my industry colleagues suggest it’s a nightmare! I’m so hooked on its vision that at many points developers have to drag me down to the ground and I have to face realistic choices. It’s a bit of a 3D game where the world has to be credible enough and the hardest part is to sync the virtual scene with the real world location.

Jan Filipowiak presents an early version of the PastGuide app

It so often happens when, for all kinds of reasons, ideas that at first seem amazing hit a barrier. You won a fair share of competitions, including Mobip’s coaching track and the European Commission’s SME Instrument. But in order to succeed you also need to find strong business partnerships. Even if you can develop the program yourself, you can’t make PastGuide “happen” on your own. So how is PastGuide doing in this regard?

We have a prototype that is very early but it helps to envision what we want to achieve. So far our partners are reacting positively or very positively to the app and the idea, although every partner has their own unique traits we have to consider and every discussion proves we are gaining new perspectives and experience in this (and we’ve had to scrap some assumptions). We’re at the stage of gaining partnership attention so I can’t say we’re there yet, but the response is very promising.

Did you also need or perhaps still need some additional financing to make PastGuide as impressive as you imagine it to be?

We’ve already invested a fair share of our savings in the production of the prototype and fine-tuning of the idea and the business model. We’re now using funds from the SME Instrument grant, which is very helpful, but in order to take PastGuide to the production level we will need considerable funding from investors in the next year. In order to get to this stage we began investor talks earlier this year. It’s not easy as every investor wants to buy your cash flow first and you have to promise high or very high profits. I’ve spent a lot of my time figuring out the business model that will be able to cover this and we’re in the process of consultations with potential investors.

PastGuide is not just cool to look at. It actually gamifies the experience of visiting monuments and it lets you interact with past figures. Can you elaborate on how it works?

It’s almost like a game that you can run on your device. You are dropped in a historical scene where a famous event took place and you can roam the place and complete quests or tasks to achieve experience that’s exchangeable for various rewards. The real value of PastGuide shows when you arrive at the real historic location and run the app. It syncs with your exact location and allows you to play the scene and learn as you move around. This offers tremendous educational value but first and foremost we want this to imitate the time machine experience. That’s why sync between the real world and the app is so important. You point your tablet at an actual place and you see how it looked in the past.

Could tell us something more about the educational value of PastGuide? How do you learn about history from PastGuide? Do you think it’s something potentially of use for schools?

I guess you can compare its value to a good historic movie, but in our case it’s a movie you can take part in as a live witness. We are creating our scenes with great attention to historical detail and in that respect we are making them credible and educational. Figures and characters you meet on your way are also historical, as well as the facts and events. You learn from them first-hand about the events that took place in the location and I’m pretty sure it’s more entertaining than reading about it in a history textbook. We want to offer a special school track for teachers arriving to a site with their class; it would be a big mistake to overlook this. PastGuide is meant to be entertaining but it’s got to be meaningful too.

Today the topic of augmented reality glasses, such as Google Glass or Polish Cmoar, is becoming really popular. Is it possible for PastGuide, if not immediately then at least sometime in the future, to interact with such devices?

My personal dream is to take PastGuide to high-tech contact lenses some day in the future. There’s a great lecture by Dr. Michio Kaku that we shared on our Facebook page, where he says scientists are already working on such lenses, but in the meantime I guess Glass and VR devices are our obvious next step. Google Tango is a technology to consider with phones aware of their physical surroundings and I’ve also learned about a technology called Magic Leap that’s currently just being developed in the U.S. that allows you to wear some kind of interface and experience 3D objects in life space and even a small glimpse of it is mind-boggling. PastGuide is being developed with cross-platform technology and we’re not planning to stick to just tablets and smartphones for long. We’re aware that people will get tired of constantly holding these devices so this is one of our main challenges right now. But first we want to take off as obviously even this first step is making people curious and wanting to try it out.

Could you let us know when we can expect to be able to download PastGuide and what locations it’s going to cover first?

We’re building our first scene, a real world one, in Poland in a location that we will announce at the beginning of 2015. We want to try it out in our local environment and then move it to the next level with partners from abroad. I don’t want to disclose any details now as we’re still in the middle of partner talks, but I will make sure you and our adopters are informed about it as soon as it becomes available in the early stage to test even at home. We want to iterate the app and the content where we can with our users.

PastGuide is more then just a novelty. Considering how much time and effort it took to create, it requires a success to make ends meet. Such success would change the way people visit museums and monuments. It would even change the way people actually look (literally) when passing through such places. Its potential seems infinite, but it may very well come short too. What makes you think it’s going to succeed?

I won’t be very original if I say that I’m convinced about this app’s success. Every founder is at the beginning of his or her path. This is required to push the bandwagon forward in the toughest moments. I’m also convinced that the team I have is motivated and up for the job and that is what matters most. I’ve scrapped a few ideas in the past so I’m accustomed to failure too but my guts are telling me I’m right this time.

And if I’m wrong? Well, I’ve got enough ideas to try for a lifetime! But seriously there’s so much talk about investors in the start-up world. In my opinion, the founder should be the hardest investor to convince because he is investing his life and family and work time into it and no one can give that back to him. PastGuide offers potential beyond the historic aspect. I’ve already had suggestions and queries from the real estate and architectural industries. I’m sure PastGuide will change a lot before it reaches maturity. We already see its gaming graphics will have to evolve into something more realistic. The business model may change too and we may decide to monetize from different industries too. But first we want to take off.


Read more about innovative Polish mobile apps:

A Polish million user app that is changing the face of calculators

Shapes — 3D Geometry Learning is making the case for Polish educational apps — interview with Paweł Flieger



Adrian Senecki

Got any questions? Send an e-mail to the author

Originally published at www.web.gov.pl.

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