UC Berkeley professor Luisa Caldas uses augmented reality to reveal untold history, unheard voices at BAMPFA

BAMPFA/Courtesy

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On June 26, 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was signed by 50 countries in San Francisco after being printed at the former UC Printing Press. Unbeknown to many UC Berkeley students, that world-changing printing press is now — with much of the same building design — the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, otherwise known as BAMPFA. This story and many others have been brought to light by Luisa Caldas’ current project “Augmented Time,” an augmented reality, or AR, experience currently showing at BAMPFA. 

Caldas, a UC Berkeley architecture professor and director of the UC Berkeley Virtual and Augmented Reality Laboratory, specializes in generative design systems for building design and sustainable architecture. Essentially, she uses AR software to allow architects to view design changes in real time. “Augmented Time” is an experience that allows audiences to use an iPad to examine the history, technique and people behind the construction of the BAMPFA building.

This project began with the intention to “make visible the workers,” as Caldas explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. For a while, she has wanted to showcase the faces and voices of individuals who construct and design buildings. Upon learning the history of BAMPFA, Caldas decided that the innovative building would make the perfect subject, especially because of the design’s emphasis on sustainability. 

Over the course of two years, Caldas and a team of about five undergraduate students researched the building’s history, interviewed designers and construction workers and dug through archives for photographs before designing their augmented reality interface, user interface and user experience. The project was a learning experience for Caldas, too. As Apple innovated its AR technology, Caldas explored and experimented with how AR can be adapted for a “democratic” experience, one that allows the public to interact with and benefit from AR’s expensive technology.

The project has three components, each showcasing a different aspect of BAMPFA’s history and the variety of AR capabilities Caldas designed. First, users pick up an iPad and a pair of headphones from the BAMPFA front desk. Next, they are prompted to find the building model in the gallery atrium. An app tailored for viewing experience functions by pointing the camera at specific tags before an AR display is shown through the camera’s lens, a vision that changes in real time depending on the actions of the user. Backing up or zooming in with the lens brings new insights, and the exhibit is designed for users to move around the model and space. 

The first component, titled “Timeline,” is the model itself — built by Caldas and her students — that allows users to travel through time, exposing the hidden narratives of the building. Pointing the iPad at the model produces AR displays of the original building’s architecture when it was a printing press, along with photos and audio describing the building’s original functions. The rendering is incredibly detailed, right down to the style of the cars and the WWII plane flyby. Moving to the next tag transitions the building to its abandoned stage, with pictures of the graffitied interior. The next two stages outline the design and construction of the museum, with photos and interviews as well as AR visualizations displaying the innovative construction process used to preserve the original design of the printing press. The final stage is what Caldas referred to as the “credits,” which feature a multitude of names and faces of those who contributed to the final product. 

The second component, “Invisible Walls,” allows users to see through the wall that separates the atrium from the movie theater. Pointing the iPad up at the wall, each click on the screen peels away the layers, moving through the metal structure, concrete and finally the interior of the auditorium seating. From the peephole, one can even watch a film, created by UC Berkeley students and selected by Caldas, on the theater’s screen. 

The Craftsman is the third component of the project, exploring the creation of the Crane Forum amphitheater. Designed by Berkeley resident Paul Discoe, a Buddhist priest and woodmaster, the amphitheater was created from trees that originally sat on the property of the printing press. While sitting in the amphitheater, users scan the room with their iPad, discovering photos of his tools, process and architectural approach while listening to a narration from Discoe himself. 

Caldas shows viewers the power of digital technologies to create accessible experiences and unveil hidden stories. Walking through the experience alongside her, one can tell that this is a passion project; Caldas loves pointing out the minute details, showcasing the joy she had in creating the exhibit. Oftentimes, she can be found sitting near the exhibit, watching how users interact with the experience. 

In “Augmented Time,” Caldas uses future technologies to travel to the past, unveiling typically unseen stories and faces. Although the exhibit closes Dec. 15, it will continue to be exhibited by other contributors to the project and travel around the country. As for what’s next, Caldas has a lot going on. “There are just so many possibilities to this technology,” she laughed. But Caldas was clear — she wants to make sure continued uses of AR are democratic and accessible to everyone to better understand the world. 

“Augmented Time” is open until Dec. 15 at BAMPFA. 

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].