Photo: Courtesy Of Imagine Virtua /Alamo Reality
Davy Crockett’s been dead for 181 years, but the famed American frontiersman who died in the Battle of the Alamo is being resurrected by a group of Austin digital designers to lead tours of the site beginning early next year.
Design firm Imagine Virtua is using the same “augmented reality” technology that propelled the Pokémon Go frenzy last summer for an app that will allow tourists to interact with virtual versions of Crockett, Mexican soldados and other figures from the historic fight for Texas’ independence, and let them hear from those people what happened at each spot they are standing on.
San Antonio company Alamo Reality, which hired Imagine Virtua, has secured a seven-figure investment from San Antonio-based Remati Investments to fund the creation of a free app and other products based around the historic battle, including high-tech trading cards to show 3D images of figures from the period when viewed through a smartphone. Executives declined to disclose the exact amount of the investment.
Using a smart phone, users will be able to see and interact with computer-generated people and scenes from the past — overlayed on top of the very real and present-day Alamo. The app will also show the Alamo as it was at different points in history, and tell the story of the historic battle through different perspectives of the people (like Crockett) who were there. The app includes extra features users can buy, much like Pokémon Go.
“We’re making this into a virtual time machine so that if I’m standing on this spot and I look at, oh well there’s Davy Crockett, then I can go back a century and I can see the mission being built,” Alamo Reality CEO Michael McGar said. The app will allow users to see the Alamo not only as it was in 1836, but as it was before and after, McGar said.
In harnessing the technology behind Pokémon Go’s success, McGar said he hopes to get more people excited to learn about the famous 1836 battle and its history. The company is shooting to release it next March — in time for the city’s tricentennial celebrations next year.
Developers are looking at getting some “pretty great-named folks” to narrate for the figures like Crockett, said Leslie Komet Ausburn, spokeswoman for Alamo Reality and Imagine Virtua. Alamo Reality hired Imagine Virtua, which was set up by McGar and Chipp Walters in May, to develop the products.
“We’re developing a technology that’s going to be able to span across generations to tell a story,” said Lane Traylor, managing partner for Remati Investments.
After seeing the phenomenon of Pokémon Go, McGar said he was inspired to refresh a subject he tackled back in the 1990s with a two-disc CD-ROM set that educated desktop computer users about the history surrounding the Alamo.
“I’ve been holding this in my mind that I wanted to revisit it when technology got different. And then when I saw Pokémon I looked at it and I said, man if I can have Davy Crockett pop up in the Alamo like Pokémon and tell me what happened, that’s going to be another step up in the technology,” McGar said in an interview.
While people often fret that technology is “ruining” kids, this project will help them learn, Komet Ausburn said.
“You’ll have different historical figures that will talk to you when you hit certain spots and say hey, I’m so and so, and it could be Davy Crockett, or it could be other historical figures that you maybe don’t know about that will talk to you about the significance of where you’re standing at the moment,” she said.
Also part of the team is Walters, one of McGar’s friends and CEO of Imagine Virtua. The two had “semi-competing” multimedia companies in the 1990s and 2000s, McGar said, but had never collaborated on a project.
“When I started looking at this … I knew that if it was going to get built I had to have Chipp to do that,” McGar said. “He’s got the technological chops to be able to do that.”
McGar said “famous historians” helped write and vet a 1,500-page script for the 1990s project. Stephen Hardin, a leading expert on Texas history and the Battle of the Alamo, is guiding the new project, Walters said.
“He’s kind of our light, in terms of identifying what we’re doing,” Walters said of Hardin. “We’re trying to tell creative and interactive stories right, but we want to make sure that they’re accurate, right … we really want to focus on historical accuracy, we want to make sure we’re not embellishing.”
The app will also include an artifact hunt, where people can hunt for different things purposefully located around Alamo Plaza, McGar said, “like Pokemon Go, where you find objects and you can capture those objects and put them in your scavenger hunt bag.”
But while the app certainly sounds entertaining, the executives stressed that it’s not going to be a game. The goal isn’t to create hordes of kids gathering outside the Alamo to battle each other the way kids flocked to Pokemon gyms. Executives say they are designing the app to help people at all ages better conceptualize the historic place and the famous battle for Texas’ independence.
“When people go to the Alamo, they come away from that experience going: I really don’t understand what happened here,” McGar said. “But what we’re going to do is be able to build an experience to where when they go to the Alamo they will understand what happened. They’ll be able to see the Alamo the way it was in 1836, they’ll be able to see the characters who were involved, they’ll be able to uncover things that they didn’t know about, that have been uncovered in history just recently.”
Executives are also planning for a virtual reality version, an immersive experience that people can enjoy with Google Cardboard, McGar said. Laying a smartphone down into the inexpensive piece of hardware allows a viewer to see a scene happen around them as if they were really there.
The group is also planning to create high-tech trading cards.
“So you lay the trading card down on the table and Davy Crockett will stand up and talk to you,” McGar said. “If you have a cannon, it will stand up and they will shoot the cannon. If you have a soldado, they will stand up and shoot the musket.”
They are also planning to create a game board with a map of the Alamo, McGar said, “and it will pop up in 3D … You will see the battle and you will hear the battle narrated.”
McGar’s CD-ROM project, The Alamo: Victory or Death, was reviewed favorably at the time, and featured narrations by famous Texans such as Sissy Spacek and Dan Rather.
“The neatest thing about The Alamo is the 3-D virtual tour of the compound,” Jesse Sublett wrote in 1995 in The Austin Chronicle of the CD set. “For once I actually grasped the feeling of futility a small army might feel trying to defend such a large and rambling fortress.”
That review couched that “the graphics are okay but not exactly dazzling,” and closed with the almost prophetic: “But if only because there’s nothing else out there quite like it, The Alamo: Victory or Death is going to be a cornerstone of any multimedia Texana collection — at least until something better comes along.”
That version too, included a scavenger hunt-like element, and McGar said he found people couldn’t find the items without actually studying the history, which led them to pay more attention to what actually happened at the historic site.
McGar has worked with the likes of Miramax, Sony Digital Entertainment and 20th Century Fox, according to the Alamo Reality website. And Walters’ credentials include “helping to create compelling interactive user experiences” for entertainment giants such as Disney, DreamWorks and the Discovery Channel, according to the Alamo Reality website.
While the group takes the technology “very seriously,” Walters said they are more focused on the story.
“The educational aspect of this is important to all of us,” Walters said.
The challenge, too, is to tell a compelling story instead of just “regurgitating facts,” he said. And the group will likely have to address competing versions of history, but McGar said he addressed those issues in his 90s project by letting a user see all of the different accounts of certain events.
“What that does too for students is it gives them a way to have the critical learning skills to start to judge these things,” McGar said.
The project isn’t officially sponsored by the Texas General Land Office, which oversees the state-owned historic complex, but executives said they plan to work to garner support throughout the community. Traylor said the company is “trying to work” to “where we can be directly tied with the Alamo.”
“And of course we’re not there yet, we’re still in conversations with them, and trying to get it used anywhere,” he said.
Brittany Eck, spokesperson for the Land Office, said the office was aware of the project but is not “collaborating on it.”
The Alamo is actually trademarked, and when asked about licensing that trademark, Traylor said: “We’re telling history as it stands and not using anything tied directly to the Alamo, besides the history, just like we were writing a book.”
The group said it also has aspirations to get its work into schools, particularly into fourth and seventh grade classrooms where Texas history is taught. They suggested, for example, using augmented reality over pages in students’ textbooks to make them want to crack open their dusty tomes.
Virtual and augmented reality is a growing industry. Last year the International Data Corporation forecasted that worldwide revenues for the AR/VR market would grow from $5.2 billion in 2016 to more than $162 billion in 2020.
“I have no doubt that VR will stay around,” Walters said, citing his dad as an example of the potential for the technology. His father doesn’t walk well, he said.
“In that thing he can go on a trip with his buddy who lives in Cincinnati and they can tour the Louvre, right, or they can go do all these things, right, and they can walk all day without getting out of their chair,” Walters said of a VR headset. “So that’s an amazing – for this graying generation, that’s an amazing potential, huge huge potential.”