A team of students and faculty and staff members is working to recreate important moments in the University of Arizona’s history at the time of Arizona's statehood – and beyond – through a digital manipulation of time and space.
Called the Arizona Centennial Project, the project involves individuals with expertise in theatre and film, English, electrical engineering and computer engineering.
The team’s members now are writing and researching and reenacting scenes and producing videos. Those videos eventually will be developed into a mobile app to be used by smart device users during their visits to campus to be viewable in real time.
"The centennial has triggered us to think about the past and to understand how the University has come to be over those 100 years," said Peter Beudert, University Distinguished Professor and the graduate studies director for the School of Theatre, Film & Television. “And, as a school, we were interested in finding a project that could bring the various disciplines together in a formal way.”
The idea for the Arizona Centennial Project came through a conversation between Beudert and the UA’s Ken McAllister as the two were talking near the UA turtle pond along North Park Avenue.
In sharing that the pond was once part of the UA president’s personal residence, which was demolished in 1936, the two began to wonder how to present such stories in a different way.
Beudert said: “There are all of these stories around campus and we thought, ‘What if you could sit at a bench somewhere and see now what would have happened at that time? To hear the stories and to see the lives?’”
It gives “an extra dimension to being on campus,” he said, adding that the first film is includes scenes of classes in The Smith House and of then-UA President Arthur Herbert Wilde writing a letter to the governor in 1912 reiterating the importance the 27-year-old UA had in the state’s future development.
Among other things, the full production involves set design and construction, costume design, script writing, the development of 20 different characters, acting and filming, in addition to the geo-location, design and technical expertise required to build a mobile application from the ground up.
The plan is to produce about one dozen films about important individuals, the development of academic programs, the growth of the athletics program and the culture and climate of campus, each running up to three minutes in length. The films would then be synced to a person’s physical location on campus.
“It's definitely a form of augmented reality. When it is complete, the app will allow users to scan the UA campus through their smart phones and look 100 years into the past,” said McAllister, professor and director of the graduate program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English.
“Some of our team's biggest challenges have been capturing data for buildings that were demolished decades ago,” McAllister said, adding that the team is capturing those details.
“For example, when you stand on the porch of Old Main today and look northwest through the app, you'll actually see in your camera's viewfinder the first UA president's house and the East and West Cottages – all replaced long ago with newer buildings.”
It’s an arduous, but worthwhile task, he added.
“Presenting UA's history this way is an accessible and dynamic way of experience the past, using the digital humanities to blend the past and the present in an interactive way,” McAllister also said.
“Even our research team has begun to feel very differently about the campus as result of seeing the campus 100 years ago,” he also said. “This is what the digital humanities are all about: using computational tools to enhance our awareness and understanding of the human condition.”
Beudert said illustrating stories in such a way should also provide a different insight – and, indeed, realism – to the individuals and events that shaped the history of the UA and the state.
“Part of what this process does is that it makes the connection between where we are and who we were and where we have been,” Beudert said. “It makes you wonder: What will people be talking about in the next 100 years?”