AR & Urban Spaces

tARvel – Using restrictions as a springboard to explore new horizons

For this week´s #LTMThursday we are thrilled to explore a fairly recent addition to our Local Time Machine landscape, the Lithuanian-based mobile app tARvel using artificial reality to turn Vilnius into a living museum while roaming the city´s streets.

tARvel is a mobile application which enables best personal travelling experience while visiting Vilnius and it helps generate tourist routes around the city including particular places of interest with the help of old photos and augmented reality to show the way places used to look years ago. Photo materials can be displayed in the places of interest around the town, showing what the life of people and city used to be like in the past centuries. 

At the moment the team behind the mobile app works in cooperation with the State Archive of Lithuania on a project dedicated to the 700th anniversary of Vilnius. Furthermore, city routes through Stockholm, Tallinn and Warsaw are being prepared.

We had the pleasure to talk to the tARvel team to learn a bit more about the origin of their idea for this mobile app, which steps they took to realize it and where they are headed to in the near future.

What was the starting point of your project? Was there an initial spark?

So, the idea of the project was born during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tArvel app team is extremely passionate about traveling and the pandemic hit us hard because of the severe restrictions on visiting other countries. All of a sudden, the traditional way of visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions was no longer possible and so we started to roam the streets of Vilnius trying to entertain ourselves. This led us wonder what it would be like to have a city turned into a museum.

With whom did and do you cooperate with to realize the project?

While having a walk around the city, we spotted several billboards with old photos of the city. These photos depicted Vilnius during a flood and dated back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. turns out, this campaign was initiated by the Lithuanian State Archives. All of a sudden the scales fell from our eyes: We had all the necessary materials for turning the urban space we were roaming into a living museum right in front of us!
Naturally, our next step was to contact the State Archive and share with them our idea of combining old photos and modern AR technology to create digital space to explore urban history. Eventually, our very first mobile app-supported route around Vilnius was made possible due to the active involvement, enthusiasm and support of the Lithuanian State Archives.

Additionally, our project is currently also being supported by the Tallinn City Archives, Kolor Historii (Poland), and Stockholmskällan. We have also negotiated the include material from the POLIN Museum in Warsaw and the Jewish Heritage Network for our next city routes.

What would you say is the key aim of tARvel?

We can actually name several key objectives here but what we really want to achieve in the first place, is to attract more people to learning about the history of their native/home city including the younger generations.

Do you remember those museum or theater visits organized by your school? Boring, right?
From what we hear, school children often times experience trips to old-fashioned museums more like compulsory events rather than exciting and curiosity-inspiring school trips. Of course, there are many museums that already offer pedagogically well processed information attuned to their audiences. Today´s children though not only grow up in a highly digised environment but they are per definition digital natives and we intent to create a platform that let´s them experience history on the spot, integrated into their direct surroundings. Our interactive app opens this window of opportunity and is both beneficial for heritage institutions as well as citizens and tourists.

What kind of archival material do you use for your app? Do you maybe also make use of private archival collections?

One of the unique features of the app is that it allows using almost any material format – photos, engravings as well as videos both from state institutions (archives, museums, libraries) as well as private collections. For example, in order to build a route dedicated to the ‘Warsaw Uprising’, we use old photos colored by an enthusiast available on his Facebook account. Basically, any open-source materials can be used.

Have you made a particularly interesting, astonishing and/or surprising discovery about Vilnius while doing your research?

Oh, yes! There have been a lot of unexpected insights into the history of the city. In particular, we have discovered that there were trams in Vilnius a century ago which are not available any longer today, unfortunately.

How can users use your app to discover historic Vilnius?

tARvel combines modern augmented reality technologies (AR) with archive photos to show how cities and buildings looked like decades ago and how they have changed today. We find photos of sites that cannot be seen today to be particularly valuable. One of them, for example, is the old synagogue which was destroyed during World War II. To discover more of the history of Vilnius, all users have to do is to simply download the app to their smart phone and choose the route according to their preferences.

Is there maybe a particular user experience you have learned about that you would like to share?

In the beginning, of course, our team was the first to test tARvel. The app has a function where the user can sort of step into the AR bubble and study an old photo in detail. One day we actually got so carried away by studying these details that we found ourselves standing almost in the middle of a roadway, it was quite a dangerous situation, really. This risky experience led us to avoid geotagging objects next to roadways. Augmented reality sure is intriguing but we should not lose sight of the reality surrounding us.

Tell us a bit more about the technical aspects and background of your project and app development.

The main activity of our team is artificial intelligence software development. As we have extensive years of experience in the development of digital products, the creation of a mobile app was not too difficult for our team, on the contrary it was a fun project. tARvel also combines our previous experience in developing a user-friendly and intuitive administration panel to simplify its use and accelerate the speed of adding content as well as augmented reality technology. Most of all, however, we had to work on geolocation, it wasn’t quite obvious when it was best to enable augmented reality to create best user experience. As a result, a series of experiments implemented launching the AR ‘bubble’ within 40 metres of an object.

What are your next steps and plans for the future?

They are actually quite ambitious. At the moment we are busy completing the routes for the 700th anniversary of Vilnius, which the city will be celebrating next year, as well as developing and launching joint projects with the Tallinn City Archives, Kolor Historii (Poland) and Stockholmskällan.
We also plan to improve the app, as we think it has a huge potential and could be useful for any European city, as most cities have a rich history.
We are also working on implementing the mechanics of creating quests as well as a recommendation system to improve the individual experience by expanding the list of personal preferences. For example, routes accessible to people with disabilities, babies or animals.

What kind of cooperation partners are you looking for when it comes to expanding your app?

First of all, we are looking for history lovers and those who are concerned about the preservation of cultural heritage. We will be most happy to collaborate with institutions, both private and public, that have digital content and would like to expand their outreach as well as generate additional income from the subsequent commercialization of the routes using their materials.
We are also willing and capable to participate in projects that wish to create customized mobile apps for museums or galleries.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our community?

We are delighted and extremely excited to become a member of the Time Machine initiative – a network that brings together like-minded people, connoisseurs and lovers of history, as well as modern technology experts in order to preserve and enhance our historical heritage.

Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It was a real pleasure to learn more about your mobile app tARvel and we are happy to have you within our Time Machine community.
For everyone interested, please find below the links to download tARvel.