EdTech

  • Soldados Attack the Long Barracks

    On March 6, 1836, the Mexican army breached the outer defenses of the Alamo compound. Some of the defenders retreated to the Long Barracks behind barricaded doors and windows–prepared to fight to the last. The Mexican Soldados wheeled captured cannons in front of the barracks and blew holes through the barricades then rushed through the smoky openings for brutal hand-to-hand combat. The sheer numbers of the Soldados eventually overwhelmed the defenders inside.

    This is a test-render of an in-app experience of that attack from the Experience Real History: Alamo Edition.  When you visit the Alamo, if you open the app and stand in front of the Long Barracks the app will recognize where you are and show you this portion of the battle. Notice, we have voice-over that explains what occurred. Our historians wrote the content based on years of research.

    Please note: this isn’t the final version–be sure to check out the app to see how the first version changed to reflect the historians input.

  • The Forgotten Women of the Alamo

    Of the many stories about the Alamo, one of the least understood is the roll women played. There were three distinct, but very similar groups of woman. First, there were women and children who were sheltered in the Alamo during the siege and assault. 

    The second group of women were just outside the Alamo. They followed their husbands and lovers in the Mexican Army to San Antonio,  and were deeply affected by the campaign, suffering deprivations during the long journey, and in the camp during the siege. And finally, there were the Tejano women from San Antonio who had fallen in love with some of the defenders. They waited in agony for the siege to end. While the smoke cleared, the wails of grief could be heard as the Mexican and Tejano women searched for their loved ones.           

    Inside the Alamo, the women already knew the fate of their loved ones.

    Susanna Dickinson became the most famous woman survivor of the battle. The most mysterious was Sarah—the only woman who died in the battle. Sarah, a black woman, would remain anonymous for nearly 180 years. Susanna would be forever afflicted by the horror of the battle. Her trauma would be absorbed and extended by the tragic life of her daughter, Angelina, “The Babe of the Alamo.”

    But what of the other women in the Alamo, the wives, the relatives, and the slaves of the defenders? Who were they and what became of them? Their stories are seldom told and overlooked, but their contributions to the struggle are as important as the men who died.

    The order of the Mexican command was that non-combatants, women, children and slaves all would be spared unless they were actively engaged in combat. By and large the relatives of the defenders who entered the fort were sheltered in the Sacistry in the Church. However, there were a few exceptions.

    Juana Navarro Alsbury, sister in-law of Jim Bowie, had her own quarters in a building on the west wall. She was related to Jim Bowie by marriage and her father was a former Spanish official. She was given special treatment due to her status and stayed apart from the rest of the women.

    Jim Bowie had a woman slave named Bettie. She spent the siege dutifully taking care of the seriously ill Bowie, and was thought to be found alive in the Alamo kitchen near Bowie’s room.

    Esparza Family Enters Alamo. Drawing by Gary Zaboly

    Anna Esparza was married to Gregorio Esparza, a cannoneer who was stationed on the cannons in the rear of the Church with Almeron Dickinson and James Bohnam. She, and her children, snuck into the Alamo to be with him.  Anna was sheltered in the Sacistry with the wives and children of other defenders, including Susanna Dickinson. She became a leader of the families, by calming their fears, and helping them cope with the dangers of the siege.

    When the final assault threw the fortress into a maelstrom, the women and children lived through the horrors of the deaths of their relatives. At least one child was killed in the final frantic fight in the Church. Hidden under a blanket, the boy was shot when a panicked soldado mistook him for a defender.

    As the defenses collapsed, Almeron found his way to Susanna, told her all was lost, and that she had to survive to save their child. He returned to his cannon and was never seen again by Susanna.

    In the aftermath of the assault, carrying her baby, Susannah was led from the still smokey Church into the small courtyard where Santa Anna was surveying his victory. The bodies of the recently executed last few defenders lay in a bloody heap. He approached Susanna and offered to adopt her child. Horrified, she refused and was led from the battleground only to be shot in the leg by a stray bullet from a soldado who was still shaken from the trauma of the battle.

    Many of those women sheltered in the Alamo are unknown today, but they played a pivotal roll in it’s defense. They came to support their friends and relatives only to see them all killed. The men were elevated as heroes, the women were largely forgotten.

  • Storytelling in a Non-Linear Medium

    In developing the concept for the Alamo AR experience we realized we would have to invent a new form of storytelling. It had to be non-linear.  Non-linear storytelling exists in film, for instance, Pulp Fiction is a great example. The beginning of the movie is actually near the end of the story. As a viewer you connect the dots and follow the path. But you never leave the theater or couch in front of the TV. Even with computer or console games, you are still in one physical location, in front of a screen. But, when it comes to virtual or augmented reality, you are interacting with your entire environment. Telling a story in that same fashion doesn’t make sense.

    We designed the Experience Real History: Alamo Edition app to be used as people explore the large physical space around the 6.5 acres of Alamo Plaza.  This creates a challenge all in itself. The people using the app become a part of the story, physically. We have a path people can follow, but we can’t guarantee they will follow it. We have no idea where someone will start their journey. So we have to be able to orient them no matter where they enter the story. It is a unique challenge.

    We solved this problem in several compelling ways. 

    When someone launches the app we play a short overview movie of the whole story. Why did this happen here? Who was involved? Why were they involved? How did the battle take place?

    We also provide a map that orients them to the 1836 Alamo and where they are standing in relation to our important locations marked on the map.

    From that point the of entry, the traveler becomes a participant, finding answers to these questions in depth. By moving from location to location, they stand on the ground where the history took place, see the events that happened right before their eyes, and hear narration that brings the human element to life. These historical figures were real people, not mythical heroes. They fought, bled, and died as real people—only later did they become legends.

    In any story of this size, context becomes key to understanding.

    We embedded information at 14 different locations throughout Alamo Plaza that can help the user understand the entire story. For example, if I’m standing at the 18lb cannon on the southwest corner, there are biographies and stories of various characters who fought there, Mexican and Texian—the users will have all of that knowledge at their fingertips. They can capture an artifact from the story and hear other stories associated with the same location.

    The Alamo is more than just what happened in 1836.

    Many people passed through the Alamo both before and after the famous battle. In our Time Machine, layers of history come into focus—here’s what the Alamo was like 100 years before the battle, here’s what it looked like when the US military used it as a depot, here’s what it looked like when it was a saloon.

    This depth creates an enormous amount of information people wouldn’t have access to even with the best tour guide. You get engaged with the material. You are standing on the spot where Crockett died and watch as he is dragged out the church and executed. You stand where Travis wrote his famous “Victory or Death” letter. Go into the room where Bowie died and witness his last desperate moments. How could that not be one of the most powerful things you’ve ever done?

    What about accuracy?

    We want this AR experience to be engaging, but also accurate. That’s why including historians who have written numerous non-fictional accounts on this topic was so important to us. The app contains so much content, users would have to spend years researching before they could gather all the information we have included.

    We tend to say “this is so exciting” a lot. But for us, there’s just nothing like being able to work on this amazing story everyday. It is an honor.

  • Artist and Historian Provides Accuracy to Alamo Augmented Reality App

    When it comes understanding the architecture of the Alamo in 1836, Gary Zaboly, author and illustrator of many non-fiction accounts including An Altar for Their Sons: The Alamo and the Texas Revolution in Contemporary Newspaper Accounts, is considered one of, if not the, top expert in this field. His hand-drawn illustrations and paintings are widely accepted as the most accurate ever created.  He is precise because his creative process begins with a thorough understanding of every detail of the battle, including the surrounding flora, terrain, and structures. His historic architectural images of the Alamo scenes are displayed around the Alamo today.

    When building the models for the Augmented Reality app, Imagine Virtua naturally turned to Mr. Zaboly for help. The developers recreated his illustrations in exact 3D models. When viewing the images in the Augmented Reality app, users can inspect the structures as closely as they choose, from every angle. Sometimes it took many iterations, but Mr. Zaboly placed his stamp of approval on every rendering.

    You can see more of Mr. Zaboly’s work in the books linked below. Of note, two of them are authored by another Experience Real History: Alamo Edition team member, Dr. Stephen Hardin.

    Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo Siege & Battle

    Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836

    Texian Macabre: A Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston

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  • You Say You Want a Revolution?

    I love books.

    One of Dr. Hardin’s books on the Alamo

    I read them, review them, restore them, collect them, and write them. Growing up as an only child, books became my friends and playmates. Echoing the novelist Neil Gaiman, “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” My life as a university professor, revolves around books.

    Yet, my years in the classroom have taught me a melancholy lesson: Not everyone shares my passion for black ink on white paper. As a reader, I could not understand how anyone could admit not relishing the printed page. I judged such people to be mentally, even morally, deficient.

    Recently, I came across the studies of reading specialists, scholars who devote their careers to comprehending why and how people read. What they discovered was a revelation—at least, to me. We can teach children to read, but we can’t teach them to love reading. We don’t know why some people take pleasure in reading and others do not. It’s like having blue eyes; our genetic makeup appears to determine it. It’s beyond our control.

    Many people hate to read. It doesn’t mean that they can’t, or that they’re lazy, or that they’re stupid. God knows, it doesn’t mean they’re depraved. It means is that they absorb information in different ways. Many of my students prefer to listen to audio books. Others who struggle with reading, come alive when I play a video. Still, college remains an exasperating experience for those who dislike reading.

    That’s my challenge as an educator—to find non-traditional ways to transmit information to students who don’t read. We can no longer afford to simply write these kids off. That’s why I was eager to throw in with the talented folks at Imagine Virtua in employing Augmented Reality (AR) to develop a bold new Alamo project. As a Texas historian specializing in the Revolution and Republic periods, it was a thrill to join a team of professionals whose technical knowledge and expertise enabled us to convey content in a way that blended cutting-edge technology, art, and storytelling that place viewers in the middle of the action.

    I’ve written three books dealing with this period of Texas history, but they were nothing like this. Through the magic of AR, students are participants—witnessing first-hand the valor, passion, and human tragedy that triggered the sacrifice that defined a nation.

    I am not given to hyperbole. Nevertheless, I boldly assert that this technology will change public education forever. No longer will student success and the love of learning be the exclusive domain of book nerds like me. It will transform the way teachers teach and the way students learn—or at least, it should. Our product is nothing less than revolutionary.

    And remember, I know a little something about revolutions.

  • For Historian, AR Fulfills Dream of Time Travel

    Why would a historian be interested in helping build an Augmented Reality app? His answers demonstrate not only his love for the subject to which he has devoted his life; but also a willingness to accept how new technologies can enhance our understanding of events.

    How do you see this project in the context of other historical accounts of the Alamo?

    This is, of course, a unique project. It allows the viewer to “resurrect” the history at will–to call up the fort’s defenders and watch them in action, or to summon the Mexican soldados as they besiege or attack them. You can enter the Alamo church and walk up its wooden ramp to the cavalier gun position, or visit Jim Bowie in his south barracks sick room, or report to Colonel Travis in his west wall headquarters room. All this has never been done before.

    How important is it that the history is accurate?

    Accuracy is always a tough challenge, especially in the case of the Alamo, because the historical record is generally thin, contradictory, and confusing. And the story is suffused with myths that die hard because they’ve become part of the popular, universal consciousness. There are also partisan, and often political, viewpoints that muddy the waters, unfortunately. But true History can be much more exciting than myth or propaganda, and in the case of the Alamo “new” facts continue to be uncovered by scholars who strive long and hard to find them. In the process we learn that the Alamo was a very human story, and not as simple or easily explained as nineteenth and twentieth century traditions have handed down to us.

    As an historian, what drew you to participate in this project?

    The opportunity to help create a more realistic Alamo, via the cutting-edge parameters of twenty-first century digital technology and Virtual Reality, and thus to provide viewers with both historical and visual perspectives–and in this case, the word “perspectives” is used literally–never before seen in the subject.

    You’ve studied the Alamo most of your professional life, what makes this different?

    As a historical artist who has often recreated the Alamo compound in paint and ink, there have been many times I wished I could inject myself into the fort, in a human size relating to the actual conditions, to get a better understanding of things from selected vantage points. And what Imagine Virtua has achieved is just that.

    One can now see the true extent of the walls from any position, and how vast a space it really was. By being able to look at other points in the fort while inside the fort, you see how, militarily, attempting to defend it with 189 instead of 1,000 men was a foredoomed venture. By being able to travel up cannon ramps, look over the walls, enter the buildings, and so on, the effect is truly ‘You Are There.’  I would indeed call that different!

    What is the most exciting aspect of this project for you?

    The medium’s ability to travel anywhere within and without the recreated Alamo compound, from any position high or low, and at any angle. It “puts” you there as never before. There have been many Alamo models, as well as reconstructions of the fort for motion pictures, but never anything so accurate–nor so physically immediate and flexible when it comes to virtually injecting yourself into the place and time.

    Do you see this changing the way future generations learn history?

    Visual teaching aids are paramount in making history come alive, but what Imagine Virtua has done is something truly revolutionary, since it can also be applied to reconstructing any event, period or place, ancient or modern, with the added bonus that the viewer can essentially jump into the recreation and imagine him-or- herself as a participant. For students, scholars, and the public in general, the value of such a medium as both a learning and entertainment tool is limitless.

    Gary Zaboly

  • Why Include the Most Hated Song in Texas?

    In the Experience Real History: Alamo Edition app, the Imagine Virtua producers could have added any background music, or no music at all. But that would not have been an accurate depiction of events–and it would have been missing a huge element.  Before the battle, the Mexican army played the “deguello” a song that struck fear in every defender.  According to the Texas State Historical Association, the deguello announced that no quarter would be given the rebellious Texans, and signaled the final assault on the Alamo. An by “no quarter” they mean..

    … the act of beheading or throat-cutting and in Spanish history [the deguello] became associated with the battle music, which, in different versions, meant complete destruction of the enemy without mercy.

    To recreate the song, however, is more challenging than you might imagine. We asked the musician working on the Alamo Edition project how he did it. There were several steps.

    1. Do Your Research. Youtube is full of themes claiming to be the deguello, and just as quickly you’ll find comments saying how that theme isn’t the “real” de guello.  Fortunately, I found footage of a respected Alamo historian whistling the tune. I noticed that’s the same tune the most recent Alamo movie used, which seemed encouraging. Finally, I found a copy of the handwritten sheet music of the original bugle calls used for the deguello. There are four, and I used the second for the Aftermath music, and the fourth for the Assault music.

    2. Choose the Right Location. For the app, we wanted to emulate the sound of Santa Anna’s band for the assault music to give a sense of what that might have been like for the defenders. Most music is recorded indoors, but that would not sounded exactly as they would have heard it.  So, we sorted out how to record it outside.

    3. Find Historically Accurate Instruments. Gathering all of the instruments required was probably the most challenging aspect. I used marching brass and percussion for the full ensemble and gave special consideration to the trumpets. Valved trumpets had not been invented at this time, so everything was played by bugles. The trumpet player I worked with happened to have a very unique old instrument called a slide bugle, very few of which were ever made. I think the serial number on his was “008”.  Bugles can only play in one key, but this one has a slide similar to a trombone, so you can change the key it plays in.

    So, how does it sound? I would describe the sound as more “authentic” than beautiful. I also layered in some tracks of him playing the bugle calls on cornet – which is the closest modern day equivalent to the bugle. The combination of the two instruments, along with the other brass and percussion, are what make up the wall of sound for the assault music.

    Take a listen:

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  • Augmented Reality: Can it Really be Used in History Class?

    Augmented reality is the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time. Most people confuse augmented reality with virtual reality.  Virtual reality, creates a totally artificial environment, and to be in that environment, the user is required to strap a device to their face. Augmented reality, in contrast, uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it, and you can access that information via your mobile smart device without a headset.

    In AR, computer generated images (CGI) and animations overlay onto camera-captured video in such a way that the CGI objects appear to have an absolute location in the real world.

    AR’s Use Case for Education

    AR made a big splash when Pokemon Go was introduced. And since then,  the AR applications with the most buzz have been games.  Although some parents might think of Augmented or Virtual Reality as just another way to play a game, many educators already understand the power of this technology. The ability to map images and information onto the physical world is very exciting, and they can envision or have seen its application in the classroom. But quite a bit of the conversation around this medium has focused on its ability to assist with science class: See beneath the skin! Learn the structure of atoms! Watch a volcano erupt! Very few applications have been introduced for use in a social sciences class.

    History teachers face a unique challenge. Unlike other subjects, the content is not tangible and teachers have to work very hard to create interactive learning opportunities. The historical figures you are talking about are long dead, the lives they led are somewhat hard for kids to relate to, and buildings where key events took place may have changed drastically. Even if you visit an historic location, it is hard to convey the gravity and the significance of the event.

    But what if the student could see events unfold as if they were there: in the middle of the battle, or holed up during the siege?  This isn’t similar to watching a movie, because the student is “in” the story, where the story happened. For instance, imagine a student standing outside the main building of the Alamo holding up a mobile device to watch Sarah, the freed slave, help defend the 18-pound cannon, then lose her life. Or entering a portal into the room where James Bowie was deathly ill with what was described as Typhoid Pneumonia, then watch as he fights to his last breath. What if  they could “fly over” the entire scene and watch the battle unfold from the bird’s eye view? Would that change their perspective? Would it enhance their retention and understanding of the material?

    Augmented reality is compelling and captivating in a way that a plaque on the ground, or a pencil drawing of a war hero just can not match.

    “This combination holds astonishing promise for education and entertainment as it brings history to life. This is particularly important for connecting with younger generations who desire a highly visual and engaging form of storytelling.” Chipp Walters, Imagine Virtua CEO

    Travel back in time with us. We know it will be fun… but you just might learn something along the way.

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  • Why would she die, fighting for a Texas that embraced slavery?

    There are aspects of story of the Alamo that remain somewhat of a mystery

    The scene opens from above the southwest emplacement. We see bodies scattered around the 18-pounder. And in the center, we see the lifeless body of a woman, her finger barely touching the hand of another victim. The camera drifts into the scene, isolating her upper body and face now calm in death. As the narrator expands the story to describe Herndon and Sarah, the scene changes into a ghosted tableau showing a woman as she serves the artillery piece during combat.

    Who was she, the mystery woman found among the dead? History suggests, she died, fighting. But that raises another question: why would she fight alongside the men? Most of the women had gathered for protection inside the Alamo chapel. Most significant of all: the dead woman was African-American. Why would she die, fighting for a Texas that embraced slavery? Her lifeless body raises questions that live-on more than 160-years later. After the battle, her remains were discovered by a slave, a young man known only as Joe. He and other African Americans had been spared by the Mexican army. Santa Anna was not at war with the Texian slaves. Only the rebels who owned the slaves. So the mystery of the dead woman remains just that. She was obviously brave. She was also unknown. Then again, maybe not.

  • Creating a Portal in Time

    When Apple introduced their new iOS 11 ARKit, we knew it would be a great fit for the Alamo Edition. The kit provided a framework to create “portals” and therefore unparalleled augmented reality experiences. Apple states “By blending digital objects and information with the environment around you, ARKit takes apps beyond the screen, freeing them to interact with the real world in entirely new ways.”

    We used the kit to create a portal in time, to the room where Jim Bowie died. Notice the amazing texture on the walls and the feeling that you are “there.” This room, however, no longer exists in San Antonio. The only way to see it and walk around inside it is through the app.

    Below is one of our development tests by Image Virtua’s CEO Chipp Walters.