One Richmond-area startup business is now offering tours of Monument Avenue that use the cutting-edge technology called augmented reality to educate visitors about the avenue’s history, from the Civil War and the erection of the Confederate monuments to the civil rights protests and removal of many of those monuments this year.
The tours are being offered for free by ARtGlass, a startup company that was co-founded by husband-and-wife Greg and Marion Werkheiser, both of whom are lawyers specializing in cultural heritage law.
The company, which has offices in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom and in Milan, Italy, develops augmented-reality computer software that can be installed in wearable devices. It enables historic sites, museums and other cultural sites to offer visitors specially designed, transparent smartglasses that they can wear during tours.
The glasses superimpose three-dimensional images or text on a landscape or objects. The images provide additional historical and educational content.
ARtGlass has relied on original source material to create its tour of Monument Avenue, including documents from the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, which provided archives access.
The company also has digitized 155-year-old stereograph images — a first version of virtual reality technology — to show, in 3D, the devastation of Richmond immediately after the Confederates burned it on their retreat from the city.
“During the Civil War, right as Richmond was burning, people went out and took these photographs,” some of which were made into 3D stereographs, Greg Werkheiser said. “We took those original stereographs and put them through our software and enhanced them.”
The company also uses video and photos taken during the removal of the monuments this summer to place visitors who are now standing before the empty pedestals in the middle of the action.
“Part of it is the magic of what you see in the glasses,” he said about using the transparent smartglasses. “The glasses are accompanied by audio.”
The company’s Monument Avenue tour starts with the Civil War, Werkheiser said.
“It goes through the history and origins of the war and the history and origins of the monuments up through them being taken down, and the Lee monument being transformed into this new site of conscience.”
The intent of the tour is “to spark dialogue,” he said. “It is not just to see a movie in glasses. It is to spark a dialogue between the participants in the tour and the docent [tour guide]. It is also to lay a foundation of fact. There is so much myth and misunderstanding about Monument Avenue and the history of racial justice in Richmond.”
Lexi Cleveland, a project director for the company, developed the content for the tour and is one of the docents who lead the tours.
Cleveland’s family has lived in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood for several generations. Cleveland studied American history and museum studies at the College of William & Mary and at Leiden University in the Netherlands before she joined ARtGlass.
“Emerging technologies like AR [augmented reality] have the ability to transport people to the past and are powerful tools for building empathy and understanding,” Cleveland said. “I appreciate being able to display primary source materials, as they elevate the tour beyond opinion and promote fact-based discussions around issues we face to this day.”
The tour starts near the Robinson House at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The space on tours is limited so far, and social distancing and masks are required because of COVID-19.
The Monument Avenue tour has become available as ARtGlass is completing a new round of investments amounting to about $500,000. The company had previously raised about $2.25 million from multiple investors, mostly from Virginia.
The ARtGlass technology is now being used at 43 museums and historic sites worldwide, including at Pompeii in Italy, where a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. buried and preserved parts of an ancient Roman city.
In Virginia, ARtGlass technology was introduced in 2018 at the historic home of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe, near Charlottesville. Visitors who wear the smartglasses at the site can “see” a re-creation of the house where Monroe lived, even though the original building burned in the 19th century.
More than 2.2 million visitors at cultural and historic sites have used the company’s technology so far.
“So far, we have secured a spot as the leading company anywhere in the world doing this,” Werkheiser said. “There is no other company that has anywhere close to 43 sites or even thousands of visitors.”
Werkheiser said the company, which employs 14 people, anticipates growing even more when the coronavirus pandemic recedes and enables more museums and historic sites to allow large crowds.
“In the next year, we anticipate really solidifying that position at the front of the field,” he said.