Michael McGar demonstrates his augmented-reality software Experience Real History: Alamo in front of the historic site. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Visitors to The Alamo can now step into history, almost literally, thanks to technology. A new augmented-reality app opens virtual, animated windows onto the most famous historical site in San Antonio as it looked during one fateful day in March, 182 years ago.

The Experience Real History: Alamo Edition smartphone and tablet app, produced by local company Alamo Reality, opens with a detailed map of the mission site, now the traffic-filled public plaza and tourist destination surrounded by shops and landscaping.

Users can watch historic battles and other stories unfold in multiple locations around Alamo Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Tap on one of the 14 numbers populating the map, and layers of the Alamo’s story open, with sights, sounds, and as much “feel” as augmented reality allows, offering glimpses into the famous battle that helped determine the fate of 19th-century Mexico and Texas.

App users can point their smartphone or tablet towards the memorial Cenotaph to see it replaced virtually by the old convento hospital and Alamo church, Texian flag waving in the virtual breeze.

Wave an app-bearing device around the plaza, and all the old buildings appear, including the horse corral, the long barracks, the quarters of William B. Travis and his slave Joe, the room where Jim Bowie died, and the Alamo building as it then stood – roofless and with a cannon ramp leading upwards from the entrance.

Even the garrison’s outhouses – once thought to be ovens – are depicted. During a demonstration Tuesday, App Senior Editor and Alamo Reality founder Michael McGar said a team of archaeologists and historians, including Stephen Hardin and Gary Zaboly, have lent historical accuracy to the project.

McGar himself has been working on the Alamo story since the mid-1990s, said Lane Traylor, Alamo Reality CEO and board chair, and is noted for including Mexican, Tejano, Chicano, Native American, and black perspectives.

“All of that content is actually in our app, and we take great pride in trying to show it from all cultures,” Traylor said.

McGar said one of his own ancestors, Joseph Bayless, died during the battle, and that the project is a part of his family legacy. He wants visitors to understand how much history is locked away in the paving stones of Alamo Plaza. People visit, he said, and “don’t realize that you’re standing on the spot where these things happened,” including the “patch of grass” where Jim Bowie died, ill in his room.

At various locations throughout the plaza, blue circles with shoeprints appear while the app is in use. Stepping onto one of these virtual circles will activate a portal, which opens on to the new visual dimensions the app offers, including birds-eye views of various battle vignettes.

“As a visitor, this is the first time you get an understanding of the scale of this place,” McGar said. “How did those 180 guys ever stand a chance of defending this much space? It’s just impossible,” he said as he wheeled 180 degrees to demonstrate the app’s 120-frames-per-second rendering capability.

“Being able to get a view of the scale of it really changes your understanding of what it was to be here, and what it was to try to defend something this large,” he explained, pointing out the virtual staircase that Mexican soldados climbed to kill all the ill men in the hospital.

Narration explains each cinematic scene as it unfolds, from Davy Crockett’s sharpshooting along the western wall, to Santa Anna’s command to slaughter prisoners in the courtyard, which resulted in the famous battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” at the battle of San Jacinto 46 days later.

In the animated scenes, the crack of long rifles fills the air and thunderous cannons destroy walls and gates. Events unfold in “real time,” and the experience of soldiers on the battlefield seems at once perfunctory and harrowing, as combatants on both sides meet death all around them.

Regular, live on-site Alamo tour guides “do a great job of doing their storytelling,” Traylor said, but compete with distractions and short attention spans similar to those of his own kids. “They’re so wrapped up in their technology,” he said, which helped inspire him to develop the app.

Use of Experience Real History: Alamo Edition is not limited to on-site visits, Traylor said. Alamo visitors can “do a cursory view while they walk around the plaza,” he said, then open the app at home to dig deeper.

“As much as they want, they can keep going down through time and exploring,” via 11 total hours of available content in words, images, and video, he assured. McGar said the augmented reality element also works even if app users are not at the Alamo.

Michael McGar holds his iPad up in the air as he inspects the virtual Alamo. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

After nearly a year in development, Experience Real History: Alamo Edition is now available through standard app stores, including Apple’s, in a free version and an expanded premium version for $4.99. The free version offers four “portals” with stories of the famous battle and its personalities, while the premium version offers 14 portals.

The app will work on iPhone models 6 and newer and iPad tablets with iOS10+. It will be available for devices run on Android operating systems in May, McGar said.

During the Tuesday demonstration, wait times were noticeable as the app downloaded its various scenarios via cellphone technology, and City of San Antonio Wi-Fi service is spotty in the open space of the plaza. To help the app find its portals, McGar waved his iPad tablet in a figure eight several times.

Leslie Komet Ausburn, Alamo Reality vice president of public relations and marketing, recommended wearing headphones to personalize the audio experience of the app while on the Alamo site among the noisy throngs of visitors. She also recommended downloading the app before visiting, due to the app’s large file size.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...