CMU augmented reality app shows East Liberty as it used to be
It would be easy to walk right by the vacant storefront along Penn Avenue in East Liberty.
There's a brightly colored mural painted over large metal doors. A vinyl sign says the storefront is for lease.
But the building's history is lost to the passerby.
An app under development by a team of Carnegie Mellon University theater students intends to change that.
The app uses augmented reality to superimpose images from East Liberty's past onto the neighborhood's present-day buildings and storefronts. People open the app and point their phones at the landmarks. The phone then displays old photos or plays music or audio clips about East Liberty's history.
Use the app at the vacant storefront, and the facade of the old Bijou Dream Nickelodeon Theater — East Liberty's first nickelodeon — comes to life. A coin appears and you use your finger to drop it behind the facade. The building then fades and clips from old movies play.
“I was interested about the way nickelodeons empowered the working class to have access to entertainment,” said Adam Thompson, a graduate student in CMU's Video and Media Design program, who designed the Bijou Dream portion of the project.
Larry Shea, an associate professor in the program, said the app will let people quickly experience the area's history and other information about a site.
“History is important, but it's really about the contemporary concept of space,” Shea said. “If you're doing it at the site, that's fundamentally different than doing it at home on your laptop.”
Shea said he's been working on the concept of the app for about two years. And while his graduate students are there to study theater, they all must know computer coding and 3-D video design.
“This is so crazy,” Courtney Thier, a graduate student in Environmental Engineering, said Friday as she pointed her phone at pictures of the landmarks hung on a wall inside a conference room at CMU. She watched and listened to the history of Vento's Pizza, East Liberty's oldest pizza shop.
“That's really cool,” Lauren Davis, a graduate student in Energy Science Technology and Policy added as she looked over Thier's shoulder.
The students meant to demo their app Friday in East Liberty with an outdoor walking tour of the sites as part of CMU's Energy Week. The weather moved the tour inside. The students taped photos of the landmarks on the wall and gave a dry version of the tour.
Students were up until 4 a.m. Friday making sure the app worked.
Shea said he chose East Liberty because of its rich history. It was electrified in 1886 to promote nighttime shopping. It hosted several nickelodeon theaters — the first in the world opened in Downtown. Radio broadcasting was born in George Westinghouse's East Pittsburgh Works. The first gas station was on Baum Boulevard.
Giada Sun, one of Shea's students, was interested in the old advertisements and billboards that used to hang on building walls in the neighborhood. Many buildings still have discolored patches of bricks from where signs used to be. Sun collected photographs of these signs. When someone looks at the building through the app, they see the old signs, including a billboard for war bonds.
Shea hopes to have the app finished and available in the Apple App Store by the end of the semester.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-336-8448.