Experiencing (In)tangible Heritage Through eXtended Reality: Western Beach Park, Geelong

Image Credit : MInDLab, Deakin University; Geelong Heritage Centre; City of Greater Geelong




Project Overview

MInD (Mediated Intelligence in Design) Lab has teamed up with the City of Greater Geelong to create its first open-air digital exhibition in urban public space through application of mobile AR technology which aims to seamlessly integrate intangible/tangible heritage data into everyday city experience. The context of the project is the newly revitalized Western Beach Park in Geelong, which draws on the area’s extensive industrial and leisure past. The project explores representational possibilities through immersive/locative media technologies and interactive storytelling to imaginatively connect people with location’s forgotten histories.
The reconstructed stories of the last 200 years, told through application of various visual and auditory means, are activated through an augmented reality app designed to trigger the right story at the right time based on the visitor’s location while using the smart device.
The app represents accessible medium for collective local engagement. While traditional AR – one device and one user – is not inherently collaborative, the proposed app provides a platform for people to connect through story-sharing. As such, on-site experience extends into collective communication/collaboration, where people not only share personal impressions but learn about and comment stories of others through the platform. Exchange of testimonials happens directly through the app by image upload/voice recording/text typing/text editing.
As the Smart City initiative of the City of Greater Geelong pushes towards more participatory models for citizen engagement, the proposed project provides an alternative method as technological platform to facilitate bottom-up, participatory and co-creative community involvement in future digital place-making.

Project Commissioner

City of Geelong

Project Creator

Mind Lab, Deakin University


MInD Lab, Deakin University (Project Developer/Managers);
The Greater City of Geelong (Project Commissioner);
DarkSpade (Technology Developer)

Project Brief

3000m2 area of Western Beach, prime location along the Geelong CBD coastline, was officially locked for the public in 2005 when Lew-Marine, boat maintenance company located on the site, closed its operations. After six year of inactivity, Waterfront Committee stressed that the site should be reopen for the public with priority to: maximise public use, diversify pedestrian activities, and enable direct access to the water. During 2015 GHD Group was hired to do location heritage assessment, and consequently considered preserved on-site artifacts “of low archeological significance.” In 2017 the new park design development began. The construction took place between March and August 2019, when the park was officially open for the public.
Although the City’s landscape architects agreed that material artifacts located on the site did not carry official heritage value, they were impressed with “intangible heritage” of the location –people’s everyday histories recorded in different ways. They reach out to the MInDLab team to understand how emerging digital technology can help to display/exhibit stories of the past and complement and diversify heritage experiences and storytelling on the site.
The project development followed a few distinct phases: locating, collecting and classifying material available for the digital exhibition; conducting pedestrian traffic analysis of the site – including visitors’ movement patterns; understanding technologies that can be used for the open space exhibition; and, designing the conceptual map that will determine relationship between the digital representation of selected stories, on-site visitors movement and a selection of appropriate media to showcase the past.

Project Innovation/Need

This project proposes new, ground-breaking way of experiencing everyday peoples’ histories in public space, at the exact locations where they happened. The key to innovation is the novel way of telling the past through utilisation of location-based technologies, where visitors are not only observers but are active participants immersed in the diverse digital content, and furthermore, potential creators and storytellers of the new narratives of the place.
While the number of stories and the way they are represented through a mobile app are pre-defined and developed by the project designers, the order of the events to undergo through exclusively depend on visitors’ personal movement thorough the site. Therefore, it is up to the app user to decide the order in which stories will be experienced based on individual movement through the site. Specific digital stories presentations are attached to different “interaction points.” There are multiple ways to reach their geo-location, and therefore, numerous ways how the story of the past can be told.
Histories are communicated through continuous dialogue between user – technology – place. Every time visitor moves through the site, changes the location and position, on-site installed beacons notify the app, and the app reconnects with the visitor through new set of information. The purpose of this interaction design is to make experience natural and intuitive, to allow the visitor to obtain the information spontaneously: through the process of walking/moving around. Technology does not represent the obstacle, but it is natural extension of user’s behavior in public space.

Design Challenge

The main challenge was to select and integrate necessary technologies, with a particular focus on mobile AR and locative media, to exhibit/display intangible histories of the existing public space and to make them integral part of the reconstructed physical space. The project required successful synthesis of the “existing physical space” and “historical digital space,” for the purpose of creating an effective digital story-telling that would complement the quality of the location through diversification of on-site experiences and ultimately lead to community engagement through personal story sharing.
To achieve this, we focused on understanding the relationship between: 1) the most dominant stories of the site, historical accuracy and the necessary modes of representations, 2) current utilisation of different areas of the site – pedestrian paths/movement/views, and 3) how technology can be effectively exploited to tell the past through maximal utilisation of existing physical features with minimal interruption of current pedestrian flow and, consequently, open new alternate pathways for visitors to engage with the area.
While the app represents the outcome of the design process of the open-air exhibition and is the main tool through which the digital historic artifacts/stories can be accessed, the team aimed to create authentic/personalized site-specific experiences that will combine physical and digital spaces. The solution to the challenge came through the idea of “making the location alive” – enabling the site to tell the story of itself through the app by “sensing” visitor’s geo-position and initiating the preassigned set of stories tied to each location.

Future Impact

In this project, new experiences emerge through the alignment of (1) location-specific digital information immersion, and (2) on-site physical movement. Mobile technology devices are recognised as physical obstacles when used in public space because they impede spontaneous movements and split user’s attention. However, we aim to take advantage of this “attention duality” to create a new hybrid space where one activity complements the other in an intuitive and natural way.
At all three site entrances, welcoming signs will be appointed with the information about the exhibition and instructions how to install the mobile app by scanning of QR codes. After mobile app activation, display of the selected digital artifacts/stories solely depend on visitor’s movement throughout the site, determined by the geo-location and proximity to the eight “interaction points” – digital exhibition areas demarcated by installed on-site beacons – all of them providing different set of information by using different media modes (sound, image, narration, etc.).
Three sets of stories are represented: on multiple public bath structures that were in function between 1850s and 1950s; on generations of boat-builders that were active from 1950s to 2000s; and about land reclamation – transformation of Geelong coastline through gradual actions, from the 19th century first colonial settlements until today. There are almost no physical artifacts on the location to witness rich local histories, and as such, collection and digitalisation of stories/artifacts, and furthermore, their presentation through the digital platform enable exploration of the past to be adventurous through an innovative AR experience.

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