Augmenting Jewish Reality

Originally published on as part of the 28 Days, 28 Ideas project.

28 Days, 28 Ideas Blog Partner Remember a year or two ago when GPS technology started being added to cell phone applications? Many of us scoffed at the idea of being trackable by Big Brother or God knows who else, imagining the worst case scenarios of a privacy-free world. Fast-forward to today, and we can’t imagine walking from the subway to a meeting at an unfamiliar location without whipping out our phone and asking Google Maps to guide us, and when the meeting is over, we ask Google Local to guide us to the closest bar with a happy hour.

Well, my friends, Augmented Reality is the next feature coming to your phones that you won’t be able to live without. At its most basic, AR technology allows you to point your phone’s camera lens at objects in the real world to conjure all sorts of information related to it on your screen. The Boston Globe had a great introduction to the technology published in September.

Here's what an Augmented Reality app might look like on your phone!AR technology has many potential applications in Jewish life. The most obvious to me fall in the categories of preservation of memory. Imagine walking through a Jewish cemetery and having instant access to biographical information, photographs, videos, family trees, and more, all available on your phone simply by focusing your camera on a particular headstone. Or envision a tour through the Lower East Side where every building unlocks an oral history from the people who grew up, lived, and worked there. Or think about all those portraits hanging on your synagogue’s walls — wouldn’t it be great to hear your beloved old cantor sing once more, simply by pointing your phone at the painting of him?

Now, I’m an educator, not an engineer. I don’t know how ready our current generations of phones are for this now, but if we’re not there yet, we will be there soon. The real hurdle I see is getting all this information compiled and ready to be accessed. What I propose — although Lord knows I’m not the one capable of making it happen — is a standardized, user-friendly platform developed for Jewish communal use. From the end-user’s point of view, the platform would need to be a free, easy-to-install (and easy-to-use) app available for all the major hand-held devices. From the perspective of Jewish institutions, the interface needs to be as simple as taking a picture of the object and then filling out a template with text, graphics, and videos, no more complex than the system Facebook employs for posting any of those things from the status update box. (I recognize there are probably some hurdles to clear in terms of making the AR app recognize objects more complex than two-dimensional pictures based on amateur photography, but let me dream for a moment.)

Of course, because I am an educator, I see great educational opportunities opening up with this software. Recording the oral histories, researching and writing up the narratives, compiling and editing appropriate graphics and photographs to augment our various realities could be excellent projects for Hebrew High school classes, organizational interns, adult volunteer groups, and others (not to mention trained historians). Because all these organizations would be working on the same platform, a Wikipedia-style collection of related information could be accessed from related objects half a world away. Perhaps a clever programmer could even aggregate existing information from existing sites like Wikipedia, MyJewishLearning, etc. For example, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem could pool their resources — which could then also be linked to by a teenager in Nashville who’s adding AR tags to the Nashville Holocaust Memorial as part of his Eagle Scout project.

AR doesn’t only lend itself to history projects. Imagine a Tzedakkah Gallery in the lobby of your JCC, with exhibits highlighting the work of several great non-profits. Point your phone at the one your like best to load a screen that lets you make a donation. What about a game that encourages your Birthright Israel trip to put down their beers to follow a trail of hidden clues (visible only by pointing your phone at the sites hinted at in previous clues) through a historic neighborhood in Israel? On a more commercial level, wouldn’t it be great to preview the music and videos on sale at the Jewish Book Store by simply aiming your phone at them?

Like I said, I have no idea how to make this happen, but I’m sure one of our readers out there in Jewschool-land has the expertise to program this in one really long, Redbull-fueled evening. I’m not asking for anything, other than the opportunity to be one of the first to start tagging the Jewish sites around Boston and enriching the educational opportunities available to anyone with a phone in her pocket.

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, The Plan B Institute for a Jewish Future over at 31 Days, 31 Ideas. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea at JTA’s Fundermentalist blog.