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  • Ettienne LeFebre

AR’s Potential as a Tool for Cultural Heritage Education and Reconnection

“To Indulge a Child” is a project that explores Augmented Reality (AR) as a potential tool for cultural heritage reconnection and education. The thesis project was completed by designer Jessica Kazuko Kim in fulfillment of a Master of Design degree from the UC Berkeley College of Engineering and the College of Environmental Design. The program is a technology design program that crosses interdisciplinary boundaries and “prepares students…by connecting technical rigor, design theory and social practice to develop more socially conscious technology”. Kim’s project focuses on the Japanese-American community and illuminates different aspects of cultural heritage and history that can be enhanced in interpretive education through AR. Kim’s project and AR tools can provide preservation professionals with new ideas on how emerging technologies can be used to create interactive educational experiences related to cultural heritage, as preservation professionals ask themselves how they can innovate and ensure that the virtual world informs deeper understanding of sites of cultural learning.


Cultural heritage preservation, or the preservation of cultural practices and identities, is integral to the work of preservationists who wish to tell the layered stories of people in historic places. Intangible heritage, or cultural knowledge that does not have a physical form such as stories, songs, dances, and practices that convey traditional or communal knowledge; is an aspect of cultural heritage education that interpreters struggle to convey to audiences at historic sites. While some sites have employed video screens, audio recordings, live readings, and live performances to showcase and interpret intangible heritage, these formats of interpretation have an ephemeral and experiential nature. This leads to challenges in housing permanent exhibits that can reach all visitors, not just those lucky enough to visit on the day of a reading or performance.


Augmented reality (AR) is a recent technology that has been successfully adopted and shown to engage audiences in new ways that could potentially provide a more consistent, permanent, and interactive form of interpretation of intangible heritage. AR brings physical and non-physical environments together, reinforcing and acknowledging the interdependence of tangible and intangible heritage. Both tangible and intangible heritage are already interdependent of each other and integral to preserving the cultural fabric of the United States and all of its peoples, and AR introduces a physical way of reinforcing this. Kim posits in her thesis “how can cultural narratives be the central focus rather than a novelty of a virtual world?” This is an important question to ask as the virtual world often looks and models itself after an imagined future, disregarding the power it could have in preserving the past and help provide an interactive educational experience related to cultural heritage.


Kim’s project focuses on the Japanese-American, or Nikkei , community and illuminates different aspects of cultural heritage and history that can be enhanced in interpretive education through AR. To demonstrate this, Kim created “tapestry lamps”, which combine physical textiles and AR images projected from within the lamp. The tapestry lamps visually convey the cultural heritage of the first three Japanese-American generational groups in the United States; 1) the Issei who were born in Japan and migrated to the United States, 2) their American-born children the Nisei, and 3) their American-born grandchildren the Sansei. Kim blends traditional and contemporary technologies by mapping AR designs onto the lamps, with designs, colors, and textures that convey different Nikkei historical and cultural meanings. For this project, Kim includes textile images of her Issei grandparents, Nisei mother and siblings, and Sansei self and siblings, emphasizing the potential of this technology to convey deeply personal narratives to a wide audience and reconnect many with their own cultural heritage.


Fig A: Jessica Kazuko Kim, Image of the Sansei tapestry lamp with a color-changing AR image layered over textile design, December 2022.


An interactive “smart textile” is also located on top of the lamp, which the user can interact with and press to reveal the hidden AR image on top of the physical textile designs. The layered AR image of Kim’s project is of a mountainous landscape that changes depending upon which lamp is activated, representing a different cultural nuance of each generation based on Kim’s research and observances of the Nikkei community. For example, the Issei lamp’s transformation conveys how the Issei defined Nikkei cultural legacy and identity for the following generations. The Nisei lamp’s image represents how the Nisei transformed their pace of life based on the legacy of the Issei. Finally, the Sansei’s landscape represents how the Sansei incorporated the Issei’s and Nisei’s changes and identities into their own lives and defined their own unique identity. The smart textile makes each user-experience interactive and unique, and pushes the user to critically examine the meaning of each component of the lamp, virtual and physical.



Fig B: Jessica Kazuko Kim, Image of tapestry lamps from MDes Graduate Thesis Showcase, December 2022.

The utilization of AR in Kim’s project exemplifies the capabilities of interactive storytelling available to historic site interpreters through AR – by encouraging more active visitor engagement with interpretive materials beyond passive viewing. Kim’s strategies and ideas can be adopted in a multitude of different ways, as AR can be utilized to tell many different types of stories. In the case of Nikkei cultural heritage specifically, AR imagery could also include traditional art forms such as Japanese calligraphy, or an interactive panel could be included that plays audio recordings of oral histories from World War II internment camps to evoke the Japanese-American experience during different time periods. 


Fig C: Jessica Kazuko Kim, “Visual hypothesis of layered photograph of Manzanar Block 12 internment garden and print of traditional ‘Kitsune No Yomeiri’ myth,” Internodes: Berkeley MDes Thesis Catalogue.

Instead of interpreting material culture by providing text on static plaques for visitors to read, or interacting with purely virtual material that may not be accessible for certain populations and age groups – interactive physical and virtual technology can create more engaging visitor experiences and learning. AR technologies could also be of great value to historic and cultural sites that struggle to interpret stories due to a lack of associated material culture. Kim’s tapestry lamps are an excellent example of how interpreters can display cultural items in an AR environment that may be too fragile to display or no longer exist. Utilizing AR technology can also inspire engagement that is spatially centered, and can guide visitors through a physical space, a component that could be especially useful at historic sites where interpretation is limited to docent-led guided tours. 


Fig D: Jessica Kazuko Kim, “Mock-up of a projected image on cloth,” Internodes: Berkeley MDes Thesis Catalogue.

Further development of the ideas, technology, and designs presented in Kim's project could offer interpreters at historic and cultural sites more dynamic and engaging interpretive tools for presenting cultural heritage. While Kim’s thesis addresses her colleagues in the design world when asking if cultural narratives can be centered in the virtual world, preservationists must ask the same question in order to look towards the future of interpretive tools at historic sites.


References


Berkeley MDes. “The Promises and Perils of Designing with Data.” About Us. Accessed January 9, 2024, https://design.berkeley.edu/about-mdes.


Jessica Kazuko Kim. “To Indulge a Child.” Internodes: Berkeley MDes Thesis Catalogue (Fall 2022): 133.


National Park Service. “Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage.” NPS.gov. Accessed January 9, 2024, https://www.nps.gov/articles/tangible-cultural-heritage.htm.

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