The last time Scotland Is Now spoke to architect and augmented reality (AR) design pioneer Pooja Katara was in 2021. She and the team at Glasgow’s SENSEcity were trying to turn back time.

Working in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Pooja and her international team of AR developers were working on the ‘Historiscope’. The historiscope is like a set of AR-enabled binoculars that allow you to see back in time, and view a historic building or landscape through the ages.

Now, almost two years later, and having survived the challenges of a global pandemic, Pooja is once again looking to the future.

Making sense of our surroundings

In 2020, SENSEcity won the Creative Informatics (CI) Challenge Project in 2020. Following this achievement, the team collaborated with HES on a pilot project to create a new immersive heritage experience at the iconic Urquhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness.

The challenge was to develop a new product that would allow visitors to engage directly with a monument, by delivering a range of AR content.

SENSEcity’s solution – dubbed the ‘Historiscope’ –used AR-informed archaeological research to give visitors a view of the castle, and life around it, as it was in Medieval times. Think of it as a telescope for the 21st Century, allowing visitors to view the site as it was in the 15th Century.

The bigger picture

The ‘Historiscope’ allows for a new form of visual storytelling in the cultural heritage and tourism sectors. Looking like a coin-operated set of binoculars, the unit reveals more than meets the eye.

Christopher Muniz, Visitor Experience Project Lead at HES, says: “We are excited to see SENSEcity responding to our challenge of using AR within the historic environment. The project aims to enrich our visitors’ sense of place while using technology to broaden their perspective.”

To create a fully immersive experience for the user, new software was developed in India, by Digital Jalebi, which combined real-time footage and animation to make a full AR experience.

Collaboration is key

Summer 2022 saw the second generation ‘Historiscope’ installed at Stirling Castle. Situated in the castle’s historic Queen Anne Gardens, it allowed viewers to see back to the mid-16th century. Scenes through the historiscope show Mary Queen of Scots and her entourage as they rode out to join a grand pageant en route to the baptism of her son, who would become King James the 1st of the United Kingdom.

SENSEcity is now looking at ways it can extend and adapt its ‘Historiscope’ technology to suit other visitor attractions.

Pooja says: “We envisage an explosion of creative applications in live and digital immersive experiences such as surround visuals and sound applications".

Opportunity knocks

Opportunity knocked for Pooja when her Master’s thesis on creative urbanism, won a significant prize.

Today, her business, SENSEcity offers the UK’s first augmented reality (AR) self-guided walking tour. Pooja says: “I never thought of my thesis as a business until I won the prize, and lots of people in the creative industries told me I should turn the idea into a reality.

“That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. I’ve travelled a lot and have always had a love-hate relationship with walking tours.

“SENSEcity uses sound and texture mapping to create a much more holistic experience for visitors."

Accessed through mobile app - Glasgow walking tour — SENSEcity - SENSEcity works in conjunction with a free booklet, available from tourist offices, bars, and restaurants across Glasgow. SENSEcity pplies cutting-edge software to bring the city’s past and present to life. The free tour also recommends places to eat, drink, and visit along the way.

“I love the journey of a project from conception to execution. I have always enjoyed leading projects, even as an architect. I did not dream of becoming an entrepreneur.”

Changing landscape

The COVID pandemic, and the resulting drop in global tourism created new challenges for SENSEcity. Pooja and her team embraced these changes to explore new ways to experience tourism.

Their solution is Studio SENSEcity. A new business-to-business service, Studio SENSEcity offers their in-house AR expertise to other companies and visitor attractions.

"As an entrepreneur, you have to wear so many different hats every day but, Glasgow is a great and supportive place to start a business."

“Don’t be afraid to discuss your idea with others. Validate your product as early as you can by speaking to people you don’t know.

“Although I plan to stay in Glasgow, to build the business, I see myself travelling and discovering other cities whose stories we can reveal through SENSEcity.”

Find out more about Scotland's fascinating tech sector at SDI.com.

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