A Window on the Past

I recently went to the excellent RAF Museum at Cosford, with the particular aim of seeing one rare ’plane – but not in the conventional sense.

The aircraft in question was sequestered away inside a pair of “conservation tunnels”, being sprayed with a citric acid solution for reasons of preservation. Was my journey down to Shropshire a waste of time, then? No! Admittedly I don’t usually drive 130 miles so that I can fail to see some wreckage while it’s being drizzled with dilute lemon juice, but this was special.

My interest was in a virtual representation of the aircraft, and after an extensive search (caused by human error[1]) I found two of them hovering a few metres above the tarmac in the overflow carpark.

Apparition Dornier screenshot.

Found at last: the Dornier 17, in a car park. The scale is a bit off, apparently.

Apparition Dornier 17, seen in a car park at Cosford.

Quite a convincing takeoff… except that the propellors aren’t spinning.

Apparition Dornier 17 is a free iPhone app, described as “A virtual window into the past, using augmented reality and location based media to recreate aircraft and their stories for the world to see and experience.” Promotional hyperbole aside, what it means is that if you’re in the right location and you waft your telephone around, a ‘live’ 3D model of said Dornier 17 is superimposed upon the feed from your camera. Walk around the location and you get to see the model from various angles. The app was developed by the Middlesex University Design and Innovation Centre and sponsored by Wagaming.net – the people behind ‘World of Tanks’ and other computer games.

I wanted to see how well the technology worked, but the aircraft itself is an interesting one as well. The Dornier Do 17 was a light bomber, used mainly by the Nazis. More than two thousand were built but not a single one survives intact today.

And the one in the tent, marinated in citric acid? In September 2008, the wreckage of a Do 17 was located on the Goodwin Sands, six kilometres off the coast of Kent. It had been on the seabed since August 26th 1940 when the aircraft took part in a raid against RAF stations in southern England. It was damaged by defending fighters and forced to ditch in the sea.

Due to the threat posed by thieving scuba-souvenir hunters, the find was kept a secret until arrangements could be made to recover it. In 2013 it was raised from the seabed and delivered to the restoration centre at Cosford – where the aforementioned citric acid solution is being used to wash away the salts and barnacles that have encrusted the wreck.

Dornier 17 being raised from the seabed near Goodwin Sands

The last of her kind… and somewhat the worse for wear after being shot up and then left in seawater for decades.

A very long period of conservation work may lie ahead, but in the meantime we can see the machine in virtual form… although not from the comfort of your armchair. You still have to get out and visit a location. I doubt this is because the RAF Museum is particularly desperate to drum up business: not least because admission is free. What’s more, you can see virtual Dorniers in dozens of other locations around the world…but you do have to get out and find them.

Selected Apparition Dornier locations

Some of the Apparition Dornier locations (image: Google Maps)

Is this the Pokémon Go of history? Fitbit for sedentary aviation enthusiasts? Well… kind of. I’m quite taken with this synthesis of technologies. It introduces an apparent limitation in that the virtual world doesn’t exist purely for our convenience and we have to get out and navigate physical space if we want to enjoy it, but that’s actually evidence of a very clever system. If you can look through a “virtual window” and see a Dornier 17 in the distance, you might be able to use the same technology to answer the perennial question of supply chains:

Where’s my stuff?

Imagine using your phone not to dial up a call centre and listen to muzak while you wait for the chance to gripe about the non-appearance of your latest purchase, but to actually see where it is in real time, your magic vision reaching beyond the horizon. To know that your package isn’t merely ‘out for delivery’ but that it’s no longer stuck in that eight-mile tailback on the M62, and is now speeding towards your location… wouldn’t that be something? Or how about arriving at your local ‘click and collect’ store and not having to wait while a member of staff sorts through a pile of boxes that looks like that scene at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? If, instead, you could peer through your own “virtual window” and see exactly which boxes are yours – and perhaps receive additional information such as a video on safe handling for heavy boxes.

Apparition Dornier conservation project video.

Apparition Dornier shows a video about the conservation project, if you choose to look in the right direction: the two tents in the background aren’t open to the public, but the app gives me magic vision, allowing me to see inside.

My ancient iPhone 5 worked perfectly well for this, which suggests that all but about four percent of smartphone owners could have a “virtual window” of this kind, if they wanted. The model I saw was a bit clunky: up close the surface could be seen to be pixellated, and perhaps it could have been rendered to match the real lighting conditions, for additional realism… but this is a product of electronics and information technology, and it’s a few years old now: if my life has taught me anything, it’s that we can expect something a lot better to come along within a few years.

Dornier landing gear closeup

Having a close look at the landing gear. Could an augmented reality app one day help an engineer to perform maintenance tasks?

What else might we do with the technology? All kinds of things. A company could offer a permanent ‘virtual open day’ to anybody who stopped by the front gate, telling the community about all the good things they’re doing. A walking tour of the city walls of London could be made much more interesting if you could actually see them, instead of merely being told where they once stood. Perhaps an artist’s installation no longer needs no to be constrained by mundane limits such as planning permission, budget, or gravity: come and see the Colossus of Rotherham… and so on.

The window on the past is surprisingly futuristic, then. In fact, I think the world just acquired an extra dimension.

 

[1] You need to allow the Apparition app to have certain permissions on your phone, including access to your current location, or your “virtual window” won’t show you anything.

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