Augmented reality brings old Christchurch back

The Canterbury earthquakes irrevocably damaged Christchurch’s High Street precinct. The area’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes and series of lively interconnected laneways have changed forever, with a majority of its mostly masonry heritage buildings now demolished. But augmented reality can bring them back. Sort of. 

A new digital multimedia project, led by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT), is set to fill in some of the gaps of what has been lost – in the realm of cyberspace.

The new High Street Stories website and augmented reality app features over 100 stories about Christchurch's High Street precinct, as well as images, music and film. The android app developed by HitLab (Human Interface Technology Laboratory) features the precinct in its pre-earthquake state through the magic of augmented reality. 

“Users can wander around the area using an android phone or mobile device and see images of the now demolished heritage buildings and the precinct as it was before the quakes whilst listening to history and anecdotes about life in the area,” says NZHPT Canterbury/West Coast area coordinator Zoe Roland.

Both the website, designed by NV Interactive, and the app feature stories from the 1800s through to life on the street days before the earthquakes.

The audio stories within this site explore nine themes: from High Street’s early days as a busy commercial centre, to its decline in the 1970s and ’80s, and its regeneration in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Within these broad themes there are over 100 stories, histories and anecdotes of life in the precinct – from the area’s architectural heritage and manufacturing traditions to sordid stories of its role as Christchurch’s red light district. 

“For the High Street Precinct project we've delved into the past – taking a specific geographic place and slicing backwards through time, letting the area's stories and characters bubble to the surface,” says NV Interactive digital strategist Tim McConnell.

“We wanted users to experience the stories, both on the website and the app on their smartphones while actually standing in High Street, everything needed to be usable and effective when displayed on a tiny three inch screen,” he adds.

"Working with NV and HitLab on this project has been fantastic,” says Roland. “It’s been really heartening to see the many ways a natural disaster has galvanised social collaboration in Christchurch, and this is a great example of that."

This project was funded by the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, Vodafone and Internet New Zealand and supported by HitLab, NV Interactive and CEISMIC. The augmented reality app is available for Android devices on the Google Play store.