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Take a walk along La Jolla Shores beach in San Diego and you might find sand between your toes. But users of the new Our Worlds app, winner of the 2022 SXSW EDU launch competition, might also find much more. Using augmented reality, they can look out over that same stretch of beach and see handmade tule boats from the local Kumeyaay tribe.
Our Worlds was launched to shine a light on Native American history through modern technology, putting what Founder and CEO Kilma Lattin calls “the culture code” and advancing Native American civilization. Lattin says Our Worlds offers a full suite of technologies — virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence — to capture all the components that make up a culture.
Our Worlds created proprietary XR360 technology using 360 degree video overlaid with content. Written and spoken Aboriginal language is superimposed on everyday objects or landscapes; artifacts are inserted into real-time environments; modern landscapes merge with historical imagery so users can see what a place looked like at certain times.
“The tool we’ve created,” says Catherine Eng, co-founder and CTO of Our Worlds, “can provide a view of a different reality for a different place.”
The application itself has several avenues of exploration. One option virtually depicts Indigenous artifacts, allowing exploration via a hologram-like feature, while another allows users to explore the items, such as the tule boat, in their historic locations. Users can open the app while on the beach, for example, and use camera mode to pan across the sand. These boats then appear along the shore in an augmented reality state. Kumeyaay’s teacher Stanley Rodriguez provides a narration that explains the history of boats and how to harvest the reed-like tule plant and use it to build a canoe.
Geolocation settings customize native history based on user location and offer primary source accounts, such as Choctaw Code Talkers lessons which feature a four-minute video re-enacting messages used on the battlefield of the First World War. It’s a vivid demonstration of how the Choctaw language helped turn the tide of warfare.
“What we can do is geotag cultural content where it’s relevant,” says Lattin. “If there are stories in Austin, TX relevant to that location, we can create a story and geotag it there.” In less than two years Our Worlds has been around – and only a few months since the beta is available – the app has grown to include content in San Diego, Oklahoma, Washington, DC and even France. “We bring a lot more meaning to the place,” he says.
Augmented reality, says Lattin, provides a window into life as it was centuries ago. “If you find yourself in Times Square and want to know what was before buildings, pizzas and lights,” he says, “use our software to clean and erase buildings and connect with sources primaries who know the terrain from before, giving more meaning to the places where we live, work and travel.
Eng says the potential of the K-12 curriculum means Our Worlds could become a powerful educational tool. “We have lots of cool story ideas that could complement what’s being taught in class,” she says. “We’re very interested in finding ways to serve that as best we can.”
The overview of Our Worlds, says Lattin, allows education to unfold around you wherever you go. As Our Worlds builds a larger library of primary source content, from scanning maps to show how a place once was, laying artifacts on sandy beaches, or telling historical stories, Lattin says he’s is about more than Native American culture. It is about any culture.
Since winning the SXSW launch contest, Lattin — who started out with his own Native American background — has spoken with other cultural groups to help tell their stories. “We want to take a community-based approach to world-building where there’s no shortage of communities we can serve, no shortage of cultural stories we can tell,” Lattin said. “We want this to be relevant for everyone, to take a different approach to building a digital future with immersive realities.”
This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.