Time machine in your smartphone

Many tourists traveling to another country are attracted by its historical landmarks. Unfortunately, not all of those have survived to the present day. Some are in ruins, with very little to remind the viewer of their former splendor. In some cases all visitors get is a few fragments and the tour guide’s stories. Ilya Korguzalov, creator of a virtual reality app and co-founder of Piligrim XXI, shares a way to turn back time and be able to see a historical landmark as good as live.

From travel magazines to mobile app

Ilya Korguzalov has had the idea to use the augmented reality technology to recreate historical places for a reason. Before that, he served several years as head of the restoration department at the Kunstkamera museum of anthropology and ethnography. Then he worked as a designer at an international advertising agency while working for a degree in Economics. After that the young man began thinking about his own business.

Ilya’s first independent project was an agency he opened together with marketer Diana Sorina and media specialist Tatyana Chernykh. The team published a travel magazine, Le Voyageur. The publication was distributed on international buses that ran between St. Petersburg and the Baltic states. The project was a success, but Ilya soon got bored with the publishing business.

Traveling around the world in search of material for the magazine, Ilya noticed that visiting popular historical places often leaves a feeling of disappointment. Standard sights and boring tours with guides telling the same stories over again no longer satisfy tourists. In case of landmarks that have not survived, the disappointment intensifies – instead of the expected immersion in the atmosphere of the past, the tourist has to be content with contemplating the ruins and reading a few meager facts from the guidebook.

But it was an order from the Volgograd Region government that prodded Ilya to launching a service that reproduces the past on a smartphone. The officials wanted to increase the region’s tourist appeal, not only for the World Cup, but also for regular travelers. The Mamayev Kurgan war memorial was the only iconic landmark in the region; others had either been destroyed or gone underground. Ilya and his team saw this as an unoccupied niche for using mobile technology and virtual reality.

There were many examples of software and design studios that could create 3D models and virtual tours of museums. However, all of them reproduced images in isolation from actual surroundings. The young people wanted to invent a ‘time machine’ that would recreate the lost appearance of an object at its actual location.

There was only one company at the time that provided a similar service, Architip (Israel), but its version was very basic. Ilya, Diana and Tatyana decided that they can offer a quality product in a market that is otherwise almost empty. In late 2013, the three of them founded Piligrim XXI and Ilya became its CEO. The company hired a developer, a designer and a programmer. 

As large as life

The project required funding. The founders had RUR 1.5 mio ($22.5K) of their own money but it was not enough. With the help from experts, the startup created a business plan to demonstrate the project’s investment appeal and great prospects. This is how they attracted their first investment, from the Ingria business incubator, and Piligrim XXI became Ingria’s resident. The company also received a grant-aid from the Foundation for Support of Small Businesses in Science and Technology (the Bortnik Foundation) and money from Microsoft’s seed funding program. The total amount of investment reached RUR 7 mio ($105K).

As the first project, the company created an augmented reality park in the Latvian town of Ludza. On their tablet screens, app users could see a medieval castle that is now left in ruins. The developers worked very hard on the virtual reconstruction. They studied literature in Middle High German, consulted with historians, archaeologists and local history experts. They still had to make guesses about some details such as location of horse stables. Two months later, the project was finished.

The new technology proved successful. The landmark supervisors found that over the first summer the number of tourists increased by one-third. The castle was visited by 20K to 30K tourists, considering that the town’s own population is only 7K.

The images were created using a video stream from a smart phone or tablet camera. The real-time picture was overlaid with three-dimensional models from the app.

Thus, there was an image of a recreated architectural landmark surrounded by the real landscape. This was the fundamental difference from the existing applications. With them, users could download a three-dimensional image but it could not be synchronized with the real environment.

The new technology uses the remains of the building and other landscape as object recognition markers instead of geolocation markers or specially installed signs. Using the real landscape, the program determined which image it is supposed to reconstruct. As a result, the recreated image was very stable, it did not twitch and was blur-free; it positioned the object into the landscape with the margin of error of less than 1 cm. Special markers were needed only when there was not much left of the object and the algorithm could not find anything to catch on.

The company received more orders; in particular, the St. Petersburg government asked to create a 3D model of the Aurora cruiser, and the Bastille was recreated by the developers for a customer in Paris. By 2017, the company created 8 AR parks in six countries: Russia, France, Latvia, Italy, Estonia, and Bulgaria.

In the beginning, the only thing that the app did was simple animation like floating flags, but then users were able to see moving people and even take part in the events. They could perform the shot from Aurora’s forecastle gun that signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, watch the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and take part in the storming of the Bastille.

The application is not limited to images. It can also serve as an audio guide that tells the history of the building and people who lived there. The narrative is accompanied with music and sound effects. The application also offers walk routes, information about the nearest landmarks and tourist infrastructure. It helps the traveler to plan their route, find a place to stay and eat. Initially the service was created for iOS, and was later adapted for Android.

Digital land

B2B solutions – requests to recreate certain historical objects – were initially the main source of revenue. Municipalities installed the app on tablets which they rented out to customers. But the founders were seeking to monetize the project in full and switch to the B2C model. They wanted users to download the paid app, but this required maximum expansion of both the number of locations and service opportunities.

This proved to be rather difficult, with each AR project requiring ‘manual’ content matching and regular adjustment of location. The team had to regularly go on lengthy trips to recreated locations in Italy, France and Bulgaria. This required a huge amount of money: according to rough estimates, expenses totaled 40% of the budget, not to mention the time spent for installing each recreated object. The developers started seeking a universal algorithm which would allow installing reconstructed images directly from the workplace. This work has been underway for nearly two years –  and has resulted in Arcona, a platform designed for remote control of an AR layer. 

The new technologic platform automatically creates an AR layer all over the globe. This layer, called Arcona Digital Land, allows any user to develop and install their own interactive installations. This includes not only reconstructed historical landmarks for tourists but also amusement rides, virtual stores, games, educational projects, and many others. Such a variety of AR apps will attract millions of viewers and make the technology relevant, popular and publicly accessible.

By now, Arcona has already been used to digitize central areas of the world’s 13 largest cities, including Tokyo, New York City, Rome, and Singapore. Over 1,000 users have purchased digital land plots and are now developing their first AR projects in Arcona Digital Land. The plans include covering all continents with the AR layer and making a full-scale ecosystem which would allow developers, artists, businessmen and enthusiast to communicate and create their joint projects.

To implement the project, Piligrim XXI attracted private investments of $650,000 in 2017. In 2016, the Spanish company Way2Wow purchased 25% of the company, a share which had been previously owned by Pre-Seed Investment Fund. According to Ilya, the move was due to Piligrim XXI seeking to more promptly reach its goal of developing the new platform and more actively promote it in the international market.    

By Christina Firsova

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