Book Reviews

Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History. Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau, eds. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2019. 254p. Hardcover, $75.00 (ISBN: 978-0-472-13111-2).


In 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. What began in print is a now robust and interactive website, with the aim of offering readers a glimpse into the beginnings of American slavery through essays, photographs, and an online exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The 1619 Project was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2020, and, despite some controversy around its framing of historical issues, it continues to garner acclaim. Whatever the project’s historical limitations, its prominence affirms the growing importance in popular culture of the role of digital technology in telling and retelling the stories of the past. It is to these very tasks—accessing, understanding, and teaching history—that Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau, both historians, contribute Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History the most recent offering in the Digital Humanities Series from the University of Michigan Press.

Aimed at historians and digital humanists, the volume will, nevertheless, be of interest to librarians and archivists for its exploration of how scholars are using physical and digital collections in new and innovative ways. The 12 essays that make up the collection are centered around two technologies—computer vision (CV) and augmented reality (AR)—and are contributed by a wide variety of technologists, information scientists, historians, and literary scholars. Echoing the importance of what the philosopher R.G. Collingwood called an “historical imagination,” the editors offer the volume in hopes that it can help overcome what they call the “imagination gap” (3) in history, by which they mean the space between current methods and techniques used by historians to research and teach and the future possibilities of analysis and communication offered by technologies like CV and AR.

The first half of the volume is focused on ways that CV technologies can be used to both understand and explain visual and material culture, especially as they relate to text and images. In the first chapter, Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall describe their use of face-detection software to explore thousands of images from immigration files in the National Archives of Australia and offer a way to see, beyond the files and statistics, those individuals most affected by the exclusionary “White Australia” policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course, technology can not only be used to visualize the past but to recreate it. In chapter 2, Jentery Sayers describes how 3D scanning and modeling may pave a way for scholars to crack the mystery of the battery-powered, miniature jewelry created by Gustave Trouvé, an inventor and polymath in fin de siècle France. In chapter 3, Bethany Nowviskie and Wayne Graham explore some of the ways that technology can augment the experience of textual criticism, using the work of Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as a case study. The use of images is also explored in chapter 5 by Devon Elliott and William J. Turkel, who examined digitized copies of two Victorian-era magazines for professional magicians, using OpenCV with Processing and Mathematica, enabling them to extract more than 40,000 images related to magic. In chapter 6, Edward Jones-Imhotep and William J. Turkel relate their use of web spidering to collect large quantities of electrical schematics from the mid-twentieth century, offering scholars the promise of studying the evolution of these sorts of images and drawings. This theme continues in chapter 7, as Ian Milligan describes the process by which he scraped the Internet Archive and the (now defunct) web hosting service GeoCities.com for millions of images and used Mathematica to create a visualization interface. The results are a spectacular series of image visualizations that allow for pattern recognition and “distant reading” (117).

The second part of the volume is centered on AR and provides a richly varied series of real-world case studies that range from educational gaming to soundscapes. While of less direct relevance to the work that academic libraries have traditionally done in support of the digital humanities, the last few chapters offer a glimpse into the ways that librarians may be expected to contribute in the years to come. In chapter 8, Andrew Roth and Caitlin Fisher share their experience in collaborating with a team of historians and programmers to prototype an AR platform and workflow that explores the history of the Underground Railroad. In chapters 9 through 11, the use of educational games and place-based applications is explored. Geoffrey Rockwell and Sean Gouglas share how mobile devices can help the general public learn more about local history, while Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall share the lessons they learned in designing and running two educational, history games that wove student learning about the War of 1812 with “threshold concepts” (191) about the discipline of history. The effectiveness of teaching historical thinking with place-based applications is explored in chapter 11, in which Kevin Kee, Eric Poitras, and Timothy Compeau explore both the technological and psychological issues at stake in using AR tools in teaching history. In the final chapter, Shawn Graham, Stuart Eve, Colleen Morgan, and Alexis Pantos look at how soundscapes can help historians and archeologists create “augmented historical audio reality” (225).

Seeing the Past with Computers is a serious and valuable contribution to the field. It is well organized, with a useful introduction that orients readers to the collection and offers a clear and comprehensive index. The value of the individual chapters would have been strengthened by a more standardized chapter format, as this would have helped the various contributors highlight more precisely how particular software and other CV and AR technologies were used in the case studies. Nevertheless, the scholarly imaginations of digital humanists and librarians alike will benefit from this text, and it should be purchased by all libraries that support scholarship in the digital humanities. Those librarians who support the work of digital scholarship and digital humanities should also consider this title as well. This book is also available open access through the University of Michigan Press’ website.—Joshua Avery, Wheaton College

Copyright Joshua Avery

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