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DIVERSITY BOSTON

There’s an app for that

Smartphone program opens the world of black history

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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The vanished history of black people in Boston is visible again to anybody with a smartphone, thanks to Arizona State University journalism professor Retha Hill. Her free “augmented reality’’ Black History app offers a video tour of the city’s African-American history.

Augmented reality systems superimpose digital information onto the real world. When viewing the world through a video screen, augmented reality software, known as AR, adds extra data to the image. Football fans, for example, know the yellow first-down line that appears in televised games. It’s not really there, but digitally painted on the screen. That’s AR for you.

But for Hill, AR is a sophisticated learning tool, one accessible to anyone with an Apple iPhone, a handset using Google Inc.’s Android software, or an Ovi phone from Finland’s Nokia. Her Black History program displays historical notes and asides that appear on the phone’s display when the user comes within range of a significant site. Just launch the software, and take a stroll through Boston with one eye on the phone’s screen. If you’re near any of the two dozen or so landmarks featured in the program, you’ll soon get an education.

“Between the end of slavery until the 1900s, black America created a parallel society across the United States,’’ says Hill, 49, who demonstrated her app in Boston at the Online News Association conference in September. “We had to have a parallel universe to white people. Augmented reality is to me a way to get a multidimensional look into this world.’’

On Fairfield Street just off Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, you’ll find a building once occupied by Phillis Wheatley, the slave who became America’s first black poet to develop an international reputation. Stroll on toward the Granary Burying Ground, and you’ll learn of the famous African-Americans interred there. If you seek the African Meeting House on Joy Street, the app will tell you some of its history, and generate a map to direct your steps. It’s a light-weight, but enlightening, introduction to Boston’s African-American history, and much easier to use than a guidebook.

The Black History app is an innovation that comes naturally to Hill. The former shoe-leather reporter at The Washington Post switched to cyberspace after glimpsing an early edition of Wired magazine and realizing the significance of the Internet.

“I saw the handwriting on the wall,’’ she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to change everything.’ ’’

Hill joined the Post’s digital operation, then moved to Black Entertainment Television, where she became the first vice president for content development and launched BET.com. She’s now executive director of the innovation and entrepreneurship lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

A computer buff since high school, Hill found AR technology appealing in theory, but thought the early applications impractical and dull. “Most of it was kind of geeky, wannabe sci-fi kind of stuff,’’ she says. “I think that the technology really lends itself to a whole lot more. The Black History app, it’s a lot more practical.’’

So last year, when Hill learned of a program at American University that might finance the development of an AR app, she applied, and won a $12,000 grant. An Australian company called BuildAR constructed the software.

Using the app is a relatively geeky experience. Smartphone users must first download Layar, a free iPhone or Android browser that runs many kinds of augmented reality programs, at their device’s app store. Each of these programs, called a “layer,’’ projects information onto the phone’s screen. For instance, some layer programs point the way to nearby hotels or restaurants.

Hill and BuildAR developed a layer for displaying black history facts and locations, and not just in Boston. The BuildAR layer covers 12 cities, including New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, says that Hill’s app could reveal aspects of our national story that have often been neglected. “Once people know that this history exists, they are very curious and very interested, and very engaged by it,’’ Morgan-Welch says. “I think that if we knew this history, we’d be a better and different country.’’

Hill favors a warts-and-all approach to history. For instance, users in Washington will see a pointer to the location where former mayor Marion Barry was arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine. “That’s black history,’’ says Hill. “I want to give you the good, the bad, and the ugly.’’

She also wants to give us a lot more detail than her app currently provides and to map more cities. She’s working on ways to let users submit additional locations, which could be added to the app during regular updates.

For now, the black history app is more of a proof-of-concept test than a fully developed learning tool. Besides, it’s unclear whether this way of viewing the world will catch on. But Hill will be one of the first to find out.

Hiawatha Bray is a Globe reporter who writes Tech Lab, a personal technology review column. He can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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