A statue of Mark Twain has begun to move and talk on the sidewalk in front of Hartford Public Library. He’s waving his bronze arms and speaking in a Southern drawl about the city.
Standing next to Twain are Benjamin Williams and David Oyanadel. When viewed through an iPad screen displaying the scene in real time, Twain looks as solid as either man, until a passerby walks right through him.
This talking Twain statue is the creation of ARsome Technology, a Manchester-based software company founded by Williams and Oyanadel that specializes in augmented reality. An increasingly popular subset of virtual reality, AR uses computer-generated images superimposed on the real world to create a mixed environment that is viewed either through virtual reality goggles or on the screens of smartphones or tablets. ARSome Technology specializes in AR and might be the only Connecticut company dedicated to its development.
“The reason this company started was to bring experiences to life, to bring history to life, to bring engagement to life through the software, and there’s a huge demand for it,” says Williams, CEO of ARsome Technology, which has worked with Boston’s Dreamland Wax Museum, the Automobile Driving Museum in Southern California and the Los Angeles Public Library. Williams adds, “We work primarily in the education industry, but we’re also in branding and advertising.”
The best-known example of AR technology is the game Pokémon Go, a phenomenon when it was released in 2016. Players traveled to various locations with their smartphones to find Pokémon characters, who, when viewed through phone screens, would appear to be sitting in the real world.
“They put the game into the user’s environment, which is something that’s not often done, but that was the key there,” Williams says. But games are only the beginning of what this technology can accomplish.
Tech giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google are investing in AR. Uses range from education to gaming to shopping. An app called Complete Anatomy allows users to study the human body in detailed 3-D models. With the furniture app IKEA Place, users can “place” digital versions of new furniture in their homes and see how a piece fits. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Google Fiber sponsored the creation of an AR mural.
Oyanadel and Williams have spoken at MIT about AR, and have designed AR scavenger hunts for museums, as well as AR menus at restaurants that allow diners to use their phones to view various dishes on the table in front of them before ordering. Their focus is the potential of the technology for education.
“It’s about informing people in a very creative way,” says Oyanadel, the company’s chief innovation officer. “It’s all about storytelling. The pillars are storytelling, gamification and experiential learning. Of course, like any education technology, you have to include a little bit of the ‘wow’ moment. For people to learn something, they need to have something memorable, an activity that they can always reference in their mind, and augmented reality lends itself so well to that.”
Oyanadel and Williams had something of their own “wow” moment when they met in 2015. Williams, 27, was a student in a computer class Oyanadel was teaching at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. The two hit it off. “We both had big ideas and would talk during breaks,” Williams says.
Oyanadel was impressed with the dedication Williams, then in his early 20s, had. “My class was a Saturday class, early morning,” Oyanadel recalls, but Williams was there every class full of ideas. “He had a passion for what he was doing.”
Oyanadel was so inspired by Williams and his shared vision for a potential company that he left his full-time job with the state to help start ARsome Technology. Launched in 2016, the company has five employees, including its founders.
To make the Twain statue in Hartford come alive, users need to download an app developed by ARsome Technologies called Hey Hartford. Once they have the app, if they travel to the Mark Twain statue outside Hartford Public Library, a computer-generated statue will come alive.
Depending on the response to the app, which launched in the summer, Williams and Oyanadel hope to add more interactive historic attractions in Hartford.
“If this becomes a popular thing in terms of downloads and awareness, we would like to continue the process by bringing many statues within the city to life,” Williams says. “That would include partnering with cultural institutions, small businesses, the state, the city, to make it become like a scavenger hunt, like a game.”