L.A.’s Multi-Layered History Comes to Life in These AR/VR Projects

AUG 04, 2022

Saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths no longer roam through the Los Angeles landscape but an augmented reality (AR) project from La Brea Tar Pits has brought these extinct mammals back to life, virtually. Scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and La Brea Tar Pits teamed up with USC researchers and designers to recreate these Ice Age animals for the metaverse, now available through one's handheld device. By using Snapchat, Instagram or Sketchfab, users can photograph and film these Ice Age animals as if they were meandering through present-day Los Angeles.

These virtual Ice Age mammals make up just one project from a number of history-minded institutions exploring the use of new technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to reconstruct Southern California's past. AR is a technology mostly experienced through the use of apps that layer digital images and sounds over the physical world seen through the lens of a handheld device. VR is a more immersive technology where a user is completely surrounded by the digital environment through the use of headsets. While fans of history have always worked to bring history to life using the tools available at the time, AR and VR are helping historians deepen the experience of engaging with historically-overlooked communities from Los Angeles's past. Here are few bygone experiences to virtually explore:

Walk Through L.A.'s Original Chinatown

A black and white photo of an abandoned house with broken out windows sitting on the corner of two streets. Children, who are blurry due to motion blur, are playing on the street. In the bottom right corner, the words, "N.W. cor. Ogier & Avila St." and the number "31" in a circle.

Children in the street in front of an abandoned house with broken out windows on the corner of Ogier Street and Avila Street near Old Chinatown in Los Angeles. | Pacific Rim Collection, Huntington Digital Library

When Chinese immigrants arrived in Los Angeles in the 1800s, many settled near the plaza (now known as El Pueblo) around Alameda Street. While it was not the only enclave of Chinese immigrants, Old Chinatown was the largest. Yet, the Chinese residents did not own this land and were forcibly removed in the 1930s so that their neighborhood could be demolished and replaced with Union Station.

With the help of augmented reality, the city's first Chinatown will be resurrected through the work of historians, researchers, and programmers at the Institute for California and the West, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Before the wrecking ball came, an unidentified city photographer meticulously documented, block by block, the streets of Old Chinatown. Over 100 of these photos, now at the Huntington Library, will be incorporated into an AR project coming to Union Station in the next few months. Historians William Deverell and Greg Hise explained the plan to work with USC Cinema's Scott Fisher. "Fisher knew that he could place the 1930s photographs in space by way of augmented reality. He knew that commuters in route to and from their trains in Union Station could, by way of their phones or tablets, 'see' the old neighborhood that had once been right there at their feet."

View of the Iglesia Bautista church, the Guardian Angel Center, and houses on Bauchet Street near Old Chinatown, Los Angeles.

Augmented Reality Experience Will Bring L.A.'s Original Chinatown Back to Life

Honoring L.A.'s First Peoples

As cities across the country reevaluate their monuments to better reflect a more inclusive collective past, LACMA and OxyArts both separately commissioned artists last year to virtually install AR monuments that honor Los Angeles' people, communities and even vanished ecosystems. These artist-designed monuments offer a possible response to the question raised in the report published by the Los Angeles Mayor's Office Civic Memory Working Group, "How can the city that so often trampled on community memory reconnect with histories of Los Angeles that are smaller, less predictable, and less subject to top-down or official control?"

As part of "LACMA × Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives" project, Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame honored her Indigenous history in Los Angeles with "Portal for Tovaangar" on the LACMA campus, close to La Brea Tar Pits where her ancestors used the tar to line their ti'ats (a canoe used by Tongva). Her swirling monument was accompanied by a complex soundscape, a difficult element to add in traditional physical monuments. She blended a scratchy wax cylinder recording of a Tongva song stored at the Library of Congress with a recording of her own voice and that of her daughter singing along. As she explained on a 2021 panel, Dorame wanted to "bring the historical record into the future" and "[open] up that perception of how we can absorb things."


Member of Ti'at Society saws wood during the making of the traditional boat. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Rethinking The Coast with the Ti'at Society"

Baby Ti’at: The Making of a Traditional Canoe

In Oxy Arts' 2021 "Encoding Futures: Speculative Monuments for L.A.", artist Joel Garcia and Meztli Projects envisioned a virtual oak tree atop the Olvera Street pedestal where the Junipero Serra statue was toppled in 2020. A Tongva song plays as an oak sapling sits at the center of neon rings radiating to a constellations of stars in Garcia's "Astrorhizal Networks" monument. To paraphrase Garcia, from this OxyArts video, the project memorializes a tree that was never there and imagines one that could be there to suggest a future in which the land is restored and cared for by the Tongva community.

OxyArts' "Encoding Futures: Speculative Monuments for L.A." | Astrorohizal Networks by Joel Garcia with Meztli Projects

Joel Garcia with Meztli Projects | Astrorohizal Networks

Remember the Remarkable Life of Biddy Mason

In another "Monumental Perspectives" project, artist Ada Pinkston honored Biddy Mason with "The Open Hand is Blessed" with a portrait of the revered matriarch levitating over a body of water at Magic Johnson Park. Archival images of the city's African American residents from the 1800s rotate around Mason creating, as Pinkston explained in the same 2021 panel, "a meditative reflective space" in which "the past and the present circulate around each other."

As Pinkston explained in the video, "AR has a lot of potential for having a space for public interaction outside of this brick and mortar space." These virtual monuments allow artists a different type of creative freedom compared to building physical structures on public land as there is less weight from civic bureaucracy, physics and even location. Through the use of AR, these artists reimagine monuments to history with one eye on the past and one on the future as many of these virtual installations envision these historical spaces with a more inclusive future.

Remember the Forced Removal of Japanese Americans

An elder Japanese American man points at a iPad being held by another woman off-screen. On the iPad screen is a view of the front facing camera with 3D images of two Japanese Americans conversing next to suitcases overlaid.

During a curator’s tour, photographer Masaki Fujihata explains the AR project on the plaza of the Japanese American National Museum. | Victoria Bernal

The Japanese American Museum's "BeHere / 1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration" integrates AR as part of the current exhibit by new media artist Masaki Fujihata who has pulled back the lens on the historic photos that documented the forced removal of Japanese Americans during World War II.

After combing through archival photos, including those at the UCLA Library and the Japanese American National Museum, Fujihata recreated several historic 1942 photos that show Japanese Americans in Los Angeles boarding buses and trains headed to assembly centers and concentration camps. In 2021, Fujihata used volumetric capture technology to recreate those photographic moments from 80 years ago with volunteers in both Tokyo and Los Angeles wearing 1940s fashions and hairstyles. Several of the Los Angeles volunteers were Japanese Americans who experienced the camps.

A iPad tablet is held up in front of a plaza in Little Tokyo. On the iPad screen is the front facing camera view with overlaid 3D images of a bus parked as well as Japanese Americans waiting outside with bags. Two officers stand in front of the bus.

During a curator’s tour, photographer Masaki Fujihata holds up a tablet to showcase the AR project on the plaza of the Japanese American National Museum. | Victoria Bernal

Japanese American internment (featured)

'No More Japanese Wanted Here': When Japanese Americans Were Forced Into Internment Camps

Museum visitors can view these recreated photos in AR with devices provided by the museum. In one gallery, visitors look through a reconstructed box camera and see that same gallery now populated with Angelenos preparing to board the train in 1942. Outside on the museum's plaza at First and Central, visitors can check out iPads (or download the app) to stand eye-to-eye with Japanese Americans preparing to board the buses headed to the assembly centers. This museum plaza is the same location, outside the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, where Japanese residents gathered and loaded their belongings onto buses in 1942. Through AR, museum visitors are brought into these historic moments to create a deeper connection to those Japanese American families on their way to concentration camps in hopes that this history will not repeat itself.

The augmented reality experience of Japanese American incarceration as presented in BeHere/1942.

BeHere/1942. The augmented reality experience of Japanese American incarceration

Rebuilding Historic Bunker Hill

a 3D model of a Victorian home with beige walls and cream roofing. A red panel on the right reads, "325 South Bunker Hill: Known locally as the Castle, the elaborate Queen Anne home was built circa 1888 by Rueben M. Baker who also built homes next door at 333 and 339 (the Salt Box) South Bunker Hill. In 1939, the building was owned by Margaret Henderson Pattison. Fifteen separate households were recorded by the WPA Survey." Below that is a survey card.

An example of the 3D modeling of a home in Bunker Hill along with the WPA household survey card. | Courtesy of Bunker Hill Refrain

To reconstruct the old Bunker Hill neighborhood in downtown, USC researchers are using virtual reality to dive deeper into the stories of the residents displaced when their homes were demolished for "slum clearance." The Bunker Hill Refrain project draws from a WPA architectural model at the Natural History Museum along with data culled from WPA household survey cards that documented the neighborhood in 1939. Archived at USC Libraries, these cards — containing details like ownership status, rent and race/ethnicity — have been combined with archival photos and maps to rebuild the historic neighborhood with 3D modeling.

Like the original Chinatown, today's skyscraper-filled Bunker Hill looks unrecognizable compared to its turn-of-the-century heyday, when Victorian mansions dotted the hillside landscape. As the neighborhood's wealthy spread to other communities, mansions transformed into tenements filled with working class families and pensioners. By the 1950s, the city started to remove those aging Victorian structures as part of the city's urban renewal efforts to attract more business to downtown.

A 3D street view of Bunker Hill. Neatly lined up residential buildings line the street and electric lines line the sidewalk.

A streetscape as seen in the 3D modeling of Bunker Hill. | Courtesy of Bunker Hill Refrain

One of the last remnants of the original Bunker Hill in 1968. Photo by William Reagh, courtesy of the California State Library.

Last House Standing on Bunker Hill

While a number of archival photos and maps document this vibrant neighborhood, it can still be difficult to envision the original landscape as hillsides were leveled and streets reorganized to create this corporate center. Through Bunker Hill Refrain, users can now virtually maneuver through the old neighborhood almost as if they were using Google Maps. Since not everyone has access to VR headsets, the project had made the 3D modeling available on its website. Researchers have been compiling oral histories and combing through the US Census to help tell the stories of the residents who were displaced. Considering the twentieth century trend of "slum clearance," the project can serve as a model for rebuilding those lost neighborhoods demolished in the name of progress.