New Application Brings Atlanta Cyclorama to Life

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As the Atlanta History Center prepared to unveil its restoration of the Cyclorama, the landmark depiction of the Battle of Atlanta once housed at Grant Park, it reached out to Emory for some help in creating a more engaging viewer experience. Researchers at Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship, Aryabrata Basu, PhD and Ian Burr, heard the call for proposals and knew just what would do the trick. “I’m a computer scientist by trade,” Basu said. “But I work with other staff and faculty members here on research visualization projects, so my first talking point with Ian was, ‘how can we make the people in the painting come alive?’ That was my first hook and augmented reality (AR), the technology and visualization paradigm, followed naturally.” Together, the two developed a mobile app that responds to “points of interest” in the Cyclorama landscape, providing viewers with historical context about figures and locations in the battle as well as quirks about the painting itself.

The app currently allows users to choose between a handful of different guided tours, which showcase particular aspects of the Cyclorama linearly, or to interact with the painting in a free-form manner. As their device camera picks up on one of roughly 60 points of interest, users are prompted either with text-based information or a small animation of a moment in the battle overlaid on the painting. These points of interest include General Jack Logan riding on his horse, a shrouded figure in the background known to be William T. Sherman, and a distant depiction of Stone Mountain.

“The painting itself is immersive enough,” Burr stated. “The concern wasn’t how we could make an immersive app, but how we could augment the features of the painting.” Basu affirmed this viewpoint – “The augmented reality is not a complete experience on its own. It’s a compendium, a complement to the painting. I want people to go to the painting and spend less time on the AR because it steers them away from enjoying the painting. That was certainly our design challenge.”

The app engages users in two different ways. There are the historical asides, which were developed in collaboration with the Atlanta History Center, who specified the points of interest and provided their archival materials for the app’s explanatory text. Basu likens the team at the Atlanta History Center to “scavenger hunters,” painting experts and historians who have discovered tidbits such as that the painting contains a single African-American subject, possibly just one woman, and only one dog.

More technologically complex are the miniaturized animations one discovers throughout the application. These transform the canvas into something of a moving screen, as figures in the painting appear to come to life. “When I started, I was not able to find any readymade examples of people who had taken portions of paintings and animated them in this manner,” said Burr, who handled animations for the app. “I had to devise my method for doing that in Photoshop and Flash by breaking down each moving piece into layers and filling in the backgrounds. When Jack Logan moves, if he moves as is, there is going to be a white background behind him, so every single movement requires some greater accommodation.” Basu suggests the technique is both novel and significant enough to warrant a formal publication.

It isn’t the only way in which the application breaks new ground. Since the advent of the term “augmented reality” in 1997, computer scientists and software developers have only in the past few years been able to streamline the technology enough for widespread use. These more accessible experiments have produced valuable new user experiences, but are also often constrained. As Basu explained, “Other AR experiences like our demo example, a life-size, 3D-printed human heart, you can have your tablet or smartphone detect it and augment on top of it. The Cyclorama is different because the object of interest is the entire painting and it’s at a distance. I call it AR at scale because it’s massive and it has to understand the entire physical premise of the canvas.”

“It’s about as tall as a movie screen,” Burr emphasized. “It’s very atypical to have an AR experience with an object of this size.”

There aren’t any competitors for what this application has done. “In the past, I’ve seen one-offs try AR with murals or frescos or comics that come alive. However, they’re all one to one, and you can walk up to a mural, unlike this painting,” Basu recounted.  Even Google is still only just starting to roll out its augmented reality projects. Basu conjectures, “If we are not at the forefront, I don’t know what the forefront is. We are really at the cusp of breaking the technology, which is fine because we only make progress when we break something.”

For the time being, the app exists in a single version, downloadable from any platform’s app store. However, Basu envisions development as ongoing and responsive to user feedback – “I think we should have a poll right after the experience, what you like, what you didn’t like. For instance, there’s a lot of text. We’re still fighting with how much there should be. You might want to see an animation while you’re right there, but you don’t want to read all about Jack Logan.”

The nature of the project lends itself quite naturally to understanding the user experience as well. “This provides a great environment for conducting user studies,” Basu explained. “I cannot begin to say the amount of user analytics that is possible. In my opinion, why AR has not been effective or mainstream yet is because we don’t have a tightly controlled space for doing AR studies. It is a public space, but it’s a controlled environment. We can do quantitative analysis.” For instance, the developers can measure how many people take one tour compared to another, how long people spend reading text, how often people opt for text explanations versus animations.

Basu and Burr are most proud of the app’s educational contributions. Burr mused that “It’s a great public scholarship component because when you go there and look at the painting, it’s overwhelming. You can’t tell where you are or what’s going on around you. It’s a battlefield scene so by definition it’s chaotic. It helps to have an app that you can point around and say ‘oh, that’s what that is.’ It unpacks the information, and it’s rich with knowledge itself.” Their work brings a new vision to the Cyclorama, where it is no longer a historical relic one admires, but a living document that possesses its own story. Basu and Burr’s application highlights the importance of collaborative academic communities and how technology can make cultural landmarks feel more current, dynamic, and widely accessible.