In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the East Bay Regional Park District, or EBRPD, launched a webpage called Parks to People on April 10 that features digital learning programs, including an app with virtual and augmented reality capabilities.
The virtual and augmented reality app allows EBRPD patrons to experience the park from their homes during the pandemic. It also provides an opportunity for learning about the culture and land from local indigenous tribes, and this will continue to enhance the park experience even after California’s shelter-in-place order is lifted, according to EBRPD supervising naturalist Kevin Damstra.
“We have content across several platforms, we’re trying to get as much content out onto platforms as much as possible. This is about the educational services,” Damstra said. “With this augmented reality they can watch a naturalist talk about this mine or take video of the mines underground.”
While EBRPD’s virtual content has been online for about a year, EBRPD began producing the augmented reality content during the beginning of California’s shelter-in-place orders in March.
TimeLooper, a company that makes virtual and augmented reality platforms for historical sites and national parks, created the platform for EBRPD, according to Andrew Feinberg, co-founder and chief operating officer of TimeLooper.
When he uses TimeLooper’s services, Feinberg said he feels as though he is “literally” walking or otherwise interacting with the location.
Morgan Guenther, a naturalist for EBRPD’s mobile education programs, has been producing video content for EBRPD’s website since the onset of the pandemic. She added that most of her content consists of programs involving songs and stories geared for young children, with “creature features” meant for older children and adults.
Several of Guenther’s videos are available on the Parks to People webpage. Guenther also conducts live programs that have been used in classrooms as replacements for field trips.
“These videos are a window into the parks, plants, animals and landscapes and these are invaluable ways for engaging people in the parks,” Guenther said. “We’re also realizing how integral these are for education.”
According to Guenther, the videos and live programs enhance future patron engagement with the parks and it is possible for people who live far away to watch these videos and learn about the parks.
Guenther said she has been hosting the campfire program every summer for the past five years, and she expressed that she appreciates having the ability to facilitate that program online during the pandemic. Guenther added that while she misses seeing people face-to-face, students have sent her thank-you notes for giving a live presentation.
“This is a very different experience from having people in front of me, but the responses from schools and communities reaching out and telling me how much they are enjoying the experience … what I feel is missing is actually there,” Guenther said.