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Who's Blogging


Retha Hill is the Director of the New Media Innovation Lab and a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hill joined the Cronkite faculty in the summer of 2007 after nearly eight years at BET.

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Project Blog: Mobile Black History Project

Imagine pointing your mobile phone at a Washington, D.C., landmark and reading about its relevance in African-American history. Layering data over real life is at the center of the emerging field of augmented reality, and this mobile phone application will bring black history to the forefront, starting with historic sites in Washington, D.C. Retha Hill, a recent Knight News Challenge winner and director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University, will run the project.

An Augmented-Reality App with Black History for 12 Cities

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Black History Mobile App had its fits and starts over the past 12 months, but the app formally launched in August 2011.  We now have content for 12 U.S. cities.


We contracted in last 2010 with a Boulder, Col., company to build the back end for the content management system and the front-end interface with should have been compatible with various augmented-reality browsers, especial Layar and Wikitude.

The company did complete the content management system to house the back end but, after several tries, was not able to build a stable interface with the Layar browser.

It attempted to build a native iPhone app that would incorporate augmented reality but, after four builds, could not make that work either.

It was clear I needed a new developer. I attended the Augmented Reality Event in Silicon Valley in May 2011 where I was able to learn a lot more about augmented reality. I met a senior vice president for Layar, the Amsterdam-based augmented-reality company. I also talked to a couple of augmented-reality startups, including Hoopla. I followed up with several AR developers but found that US-based companies were very expensive ($20K and higher). I finally settled on an Aussie company called BuildAR.

Over the summer, I worked with BuildAR to export my data to its backend. We had a few issues with the importation, but finally worked it out in late July. We got content into the BuildAR system, loaded in art and then I went in and manually corrected some of the imports, which took time.

I also contracted with a graphic designer to do a logo and AR placeholders.


One of the hardest aspects has been getting enough content to build the app out in multiple cities.

I achieved my prototype goals: to have content in Washington, D.C. and Phoenix, AZ. I then created content for Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Charleston, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York, Nashville, Richmond and Columbus, OH. In advance of a conference of African Diaspora travel promoters that was held in Nova Scotia, Canada. in September, I also included content in Nova Scotia so users of the app can find out about the black settlements of Halifax and other important history. I did most of the content research and writing myself, however, got valuable feeds from Nola Vie in New Orleans and a friend and former colleague, Sharon Scott, in Charleston. I hired and paid for content to be collected in New York City and in Ohio.

An important future aspect of the app will have to be a mechanism where citizens and upload black history that they know about in their town. A crowd-sourced data collection system is the way to go.


I also launched a placeholder website until I can raise a bit more money to create a way for users to submit information. The public site is located here:

The other marketing asset is a video created to highlight how the app works. The video was unveiled at the 2011 Online News Association Conference in Boston. You can see it here:

Additionally, the app has been featured in the Boston Globe, a Cox magazine that is mailed to millions of Cox cable subscribers, the African Diaspora tourism site, the PBS MediaShift and several ASU publications. The project has been tweeted and retweeted by people interested in augmented reality.

Next Steps: Partnerships

My next step is to expand the Black History app into a business. I think the value proposition is to become an AR content provider, not just of African-American history, but of women’s history, state history, etc., and seek distribution partners.

The two distribution partners I am concentrating on are:
• Vuzix, the makers of AR glasses. Heads of display is the key to wide AR mobile adoption. Having to walk around with a mobile phone to your eye is not the best way to experience AR. The Vuzix glasses look like sunglasses, but what they need is more content. I think history content is a natural for tourists or new residents of a city.
• MVS Labs, which is working on incorporating augmented reality into automobile windshields.

I am also pursuing content partnerships with the Smithsonian Institution, Cycling Through History, the National Park Service and Soul of America.

I am in talks with Comcast and Disney for continued funding. The iPhone app will be released when I have a sponsor and a backend to allow for crowd-sourced content.



   • Posted by Retha Hill on 01/12 at 01:05 PM

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