Using augmented reality to give visitors a unique insight into our history.

When Mumbai-born architect Pooja Katara arrived in Scotland, to study for a Master’s degree at the globally famous Glasgow School of Art, little did she realise she was laying the foundations for an innovative travel-tech start-up.

As a newcomer to Glasgow, downsizing from a city of 24.5m inhabitants to one of only 600,000, Pooja was keen to explore her new home.

“Glasgow ticked a lot of boxes for me,” she says. “Vegetarian friendly, affordable, a great music scene. There is a sense of openness here. I do not see it as a small city though, as it offers great opportunities.”

Creating a business

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

Today, her business, SENSEcity is 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. Sometimes they don’t fit your schedule, or you can’t hear what’s being said. I collaborated with a close friend who is an app designer and really helped me understand augmented reality technology.

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

How it works

Accessed through an app - glasgow walking tour — SENSEcity - and used in conjunction with a free booklet, available from tourist offices, bars and restauarants across the city, SENSEcity applies cutting edge visualisation software to bring the city’s past and present to life, using archive photography, sound, audio commentary and Pooja’s own hand-drawn illustrations, showcasing the city’s history and culture. 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 of an entrepreneur.”

Helping hands

Pooja was helped on her business journey by the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, Converge Training Business Gateway, and Scottish Enterprise, where she joined the Unlocking Ambition programme. Today, she leads an international team of developers and designers to further improve and extend the reach of the SENSEcity technology.

“I am fortunate to work with a diverse team; Scottish, Indian, and American. Today’s work environment has allowed me to take advantage of remote working and have experts contributing from across the globe. Being in the travel tech industry, it is great to have a wider understanding of the technology trends and a diverse team helps me keep up to date."

Making sense of history

Since winning the Creative Informatics (CI) Challenge Project in 2020, SENSEcity has been collaborating with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) on an R&D 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 more directly with a monument, from a precise outdoor viewpoint, by delivering a range of AR content, including historical and archaeological reconstructed inaccessible views.

SENSEcity’s solution – dubbed the ‘Historiscope’ – will use 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

Planned for a viewing site above the castle, the ‘Historiscope’, combined with earphones, is really an AR time portal, designed to transport visitors back through the centuries.

With installation and testing planned for later this year, SENSEcity and HES hope this will be the first of many ‘Historiscopes’ to be dotted around Scotland’s ancient monuments, to better engage with visitors, and help bring the past to life.

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

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

“We envisage an explosion of creative applications in live and digital immersive experiences such as surround visuals and sound applications to AR technology.”

Changing landscape

With the arrival of COVID, and subsequent drop in visitors, Pooja and her team have had to think creatively to expand and grow the business.

Their solution is Studio SENSEcity, a new business-to-business service, offering their in-house expertise in AR design and technology, and customer/visitor engagement, to other companies and attractions."As an entrepreneur you have to wear so many different hats every day but, the reality is, we are not born wearing them. You must learn. It’s vital to ask for help when you don’t know something. That really worked for me.

“Glasgow is a really great and supportive place to start a business."

"As an entrepreneur you have to wear so many different hats every day but, the reality is, we are not born wearing them. You must learn. It’s vital to ask for help when you don’t know something. That really worked for me.

“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.”

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