Uist-ful thinking

I am walking across the grassed open space behind Brighton’s Remembrance Park. Suddenly, army tents appear. I walk around them and between them. I walk right up to one and inspect the intricate detail of the pegs and guy rope – exactly as they were in 1939. 

The sides of the tent strain where the guy ropes pull tight. The tent’s entry flaps are open. I can see a camp bed on each side and a fold-out chair. A soldier’s satchel sits on the ground next to one of the beds. I walk inside the tent and see some official-looking papers sitting on one of the beds. I walk up to the papers, lean over and read the camp induction manual of the young man who will sleep on this bed as he trains for war, before boarding a train, then a ship for the long voyage to the other side of the planet to fight in World War II. 

I put my phone back into my pocket and 1939 disappears, leaving behind just a peaceful park and 2019

Now I am on the main road in Oatlands standing outside the gaol, an austere 19th century sandstone building built to dominate the town, Tasmania’s “interior capital”, as well as its inmates. I walk around the outdoor gallows, where a noose hangs still, waiting for the unfortunate souls who here would “launch into eternity” from here. I am privileged to a peek behind the hood of the man who travelled Van Diemen’s Land as a career-long professional executioner. The hangman who made the job his own. The gallows disappear as I put my phone away. The gaol remains, but it is now the Southern Midlands Council Chambers. 

Part of the charm of Tasmania’s old towns and villages is that they offer their visitor a chance to go back in time. This is particularly the case in villages such as Oatlands where the entire town centre is effectively an authentic 19th century town. If you unsealed the road and removed the cars, there would be little to indicate you hadn’t returned to the 1850s. For a visitor, or indeed a local, this makes it easier and more natural to connect with the history of a place, to imagine it in different eras, to picture some of its stories unfolding. Oatlands and so many other places in Tasmania are a palimpsest of stories lived out in different layers of time.

Even in the most authentic and intact places, however, most of the stories, such as those above, are hidden, and many of their visual cues are long since gone. How does one uncover such stories without a guide, a history book or interpretation panels all over the place? And even if you find them, how do you bring them to life? 

The original, 20-metre high sandstone windmill of Richmond is gone. The hundreds of tents at the Brighton Army Camp, such an important part of Tasmania’s history, are a distant memory. The runway of Tasmania’s first commercial flights is now a footpath. The gallows in the centre of Oatlands have long since disappeared. Or have they?

. . .

Four Tasmanian councils joined forces with a local technology firm, Handbuilt Creative, fittingly based in the historic village of Richmond, to create a cutting-edge response to this challenge. The result is a novel and engrossing experience that offers people the chance to go beyond traditional interpretation of village history. The creation is Tasmanian Stories, a collection of historic experiences brought to life in augmented reality within a tailor-made app called Uist. 

Augmented reality (AR) is quite different to virtual reality (VR), which is normally experienced via a brick-like headset that covers your eyes. AR is a way of creating three dimensional objects and injecting them into the real world to create the impression that they are actually there. There is no need for any physical infrastructure or marker in the place itself as the experiences are geo-coded into the exact place in the landscape where you want them to appear. This is achieved by utilising Google maps and the GPS within your smart device, typically a phone or tablet. 

The Brighton, Southern Midlands, Clarence and Derwent Valley councils collaborated on this ground-breaking project. Each council wanted to encourage visitors to their villages enjoy a memorable experience as well as help locals to preserve and enjoy local history. 

In Brighton, selecting a focus was easy. The Brighton Army Camp site has so many intriguing layers to its long and surprising story that go well beyond military history, yet only one derelict building remains, making it difficult to imagine what once was. And in any case, many stories can only be captured by people, not buildings. A large section of the site is now a public space and houses Remembrance Park, making it a perfect place to wander and engage with history. 

A natural point to arrive at the parkland, where footpaths converge, is where a simple sign tells you that you are standing near a number of augmented reality three-dimensional experiences, should you choose to download the free Uist app. Once downloaded, you move your phone around so its camera can work out exactly where you are standing, and suddenly a full-size replica of the FE8 Bi-Plane appears, in 3D, next to you. You can walk right around the plane to view it from every angle, as close-up as you like. You learn that the straight footpath you are standing on was once the runway for Tasmania’s first commercial airport and this plane once took off and landed here

Then you walk about 50 metres across the grass to the tents described earlier. Another 50 metres away you can view a 100-year-old film, which seems to hang in the air on a big screen as if you were at a drive-in cinema, showing World War I troops training on horseback. Nearby you can view footage and accounts of when in the 1990s the site housed hundreds of Kosovar refugees and a little further on you can read about when the Camp welcomed refugees of a more local kind, when hundreds of Tasmanians were left homeless by the 1967 bushfires. There is a feature about the animal mascots that were taken to war, including a popular local wombat. You can peak inside the camp hospital and learn about the medical treatments of the day or enjoy mealtime with the new recruits. 

It is an incredibly rich journey walking around the 15 separate, story-based installations at the army camp, all within 200 metres of one another. If you read every document that is presented to you, you could be there for hours. When you are not limited by creating physical signage or booklets there is a lot of space! v

. . .

In Oatlands, Sothern Midlands Council chose to focus on the dark stories surrounding one building, their chambers. The council chambers building was originally the town gaol complete with gallows for executions. The nine story-based experiences attached to this site are as fascinating as they are confronting. They successfully capture the central role the building played in the region, revealing its role in displaying power and creating control and fear. They allow us to know those who were sent to the gallows, those who were so bored in prison they may have wished to be and those who managed to escape. Cleverly, they also reveal a little known, yet significant figure in Tasmania’s history – a career executioner.

In Richmond, the council chose to recreate the original, 20-metre high sandstone windmill that once dominated the town skyline. One can walk around the windmill as if it were there in front of you, whilst hanging in the air at eye height around it are images from the period and plans of a very similar windmill built on Norfolk Island in the same era.

In keeping with the theme of untold or under-told stories, Derwent Valley Council chose to focus on the surprisingly long history of river racing on the Derwent River near New Norfolk, letting you see life-sized recreations of early racing boats. They also installed a series of AR TVs outside the infamous Willow Court asylum, displaying a range of eerie walkthroughs showing the visitor the areas that are currently off-limits for health and safety reasons, such as the high security wards, high-walled exercise area, and abandoned ward stations. 

Aside from the unique visitor experience, it’s a clever approach by the councils. Once established, the creation of content is relatively inexpensive and can be easily changed or updated regularly. There is no physical infrastructure on the site to be maintained or indeed vandalised, and of course the installations leave no physical trace on precious visual and cultural landscapes. There are also exciting potential other applications for the technology not just in tourism but across other council functions such as emergency management. 

The project has been quite a journey for the four councils and Handbuilt Creative, with the technology evolving so fast that the project started by needing Bluetooth beacons installed at each site and ended without needing anything on site at all. Between the four regions there are almost 60 individual AR experiences as part of Tasmanian Stories. This pilot project has broken new ground, and it is expected that more Tasmanian Stories will appear in AR around Tasmania in the coming years, offering new ways of engaging people with the stories of place without leaving a trace on the landscape. 

. . .

Tasmanian Stories is a new breed of tourism marketing tool designed to engage and enthral locals and tourists alike to get outside and explore various areas of undiscovered Tasmania. This new set of visitor experiences is based on Uist, a geo-persistent augmented reality (AR) platform developed by Handbuilt Creative, one of Australia’s leading AR companies based (unconventionally) in the beautiful historic village of Richmond, Tasmania.

You can find out more about Handbuilt Creative at handbuiltcreative.com.au.

A publisher once told James that when he is asked for his bio, he should say: “James writes subversive essays about important things.” James felt a bit awkward about saying this publically, but secretly he liked it. He has written for many publications. His books are Essays from Near and Far, Walleah Press, 2014 and The Balfour Correspondent, Bob Brown Foundation, 2017.

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