The diary in the attic


Shawn dusted off the old diary. ‘Smells of mould’, he thought, as he flipped through the pages.

Hmmph. Somebody was pretty careless with their coffee.

I think it’s coffee.


Doesn’t smell like coffee. 

What the hell…. damn, this isn’t coffee.

Shawn cast about him, looking for the android digital spectralscope he kept handy for such occasions. Getting out his phone, he loaded the spectralscope up and, taking a safe position two or three feet away, gazed through it at the pages of the diary.

My god… it’s full of….


The thing about hand-held AR is that you have to account for *why*. Why this device? Why are you looking through it at a page, or a bill board, or a magazine, or what-have-you? It’s not at all natural. The various Cardboard-like viewers out there are a step up, in that they free the hands (and with the see-through camera, feel more Geordi LaForge). In the passage above, I’m trying to make that hand-held AR experience feel more obvious, part of a story. That is, of course you reach for the spectralscope – the diary is clearly eldritch, something not right, and you need the device that helps you see beyond the confines of this world.

Without the story, it’s just gee-whiz look at what I can do. It’s somehow not authentic. That’s one of the reasons various museum apps that employ AR tricks haven’t really taken off I think. The corollary of this (and I’m just thinking out loud here) is that AR can’t be divorced from the tools and techniques of game based storytelling (narrative/ludology, whatever).

In the experience I put together above, I was trying out a couple of things. One – the framing with a story fragment, so that the story that emerges from the experience for you (gestures off to the left) is different from the story that emerges from the experience for you (gestures off to the right). (More on this here). I was also thinking about the kinds of things that could be augmented. I wondered if I could use a page of handwritten text. If I could, maybe a more self-consciously ‘scholarly’ use of AR could annotate the passages. Turns out, a page of text does not make a good tracking image. I used a macro in Gimp (comes prepackaged with Gimp) that adds a random waterstain/coffeestain to an image. The stained diary actually made the best tracking images I’ve ever generated! So maybe an AR annotated diary page could have such things discretely in the margins (but that takes us full circle to QR codes).

[Some time later, some further reflections:] one of the things I tell my history students who are interested in video games, the mechanic of the game should be illustrative of the kind of historical truth they are trying to tell. William Urrichio pointed out in 2005 that game mechanics map well onto various historiographies. What kind of truth then does an augmented reality application tell? In the very specific case of what I’ve been doing here, augmenting an actual diary (a trip up the Nile, from New York, starting in 1874), I’m put in mind of the diaries of William Lyon MacKenzie King, who was Prime Minister of Canada during the Second World War. King was a spiritualist, very much into seances and communing with the dead (his mom, mostly). I can imagine augmenting his ‘professional life’ (meeting minutes, journals, newspaper accounts), with his diaries such that his private life swirls and swoops through the public persona, much like the ghosts and spirits that he and his friends invoked on a regular basis. King was also something of a landscape architect; his private retreat in the Gatineau Hills (now a national historic site) are adorned with architectural follies (see this photo set) culled from gothic buildings torn down in the city of Ottawa. MacKenzie King might well be a subject whose personal history might be very well suited indeed for an exploration via augmented reality.

After all, the man lived an augmented reality daily.

Update July 30th Here’s a Google Cardboard -ready version of the Spectralscope. Vuforia updated their SDK today which includes stereoscopy (as well as a way to move from AR to VR and back), so I was playing with it.


Anyway. I should acknowledge my sources for the various sounds and 3d models.

– Egyptian Shabti, by Micropasts, from the Petrie Museum

– Red Granite Sarcophagus (Giza, 5th dynasty), by the British Museum,

– 2 crouched burial inserted in bronze age pit, by d.powlesand

– ambient desert sounds by Joelakjgp

– Akeley’s wax cylinder recordings

– Edison’s talking doll

– Man from the South, by Rube Bloom and his Bayou Boys

In the cardboard version, there are a few more things:

Granite head of Amenemhat III, British Museum

– Mystic Chanting 4 by Mariann Gagnon,


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