New Augmented-Reality App Layers Historical Experience onto Alamo Plaza

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Michael McGar demonstrates his augmented-reality software Experience Real History: Alamo in front of the historic site.

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.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Users can watch historic battles and other stories unfold in multiple locations around Alamo Plaza.

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.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Michael McGar holds his iPad up in the air as he inspects the virtual Alamo.

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.

2 thoughts on “New Augmented-Reality App Layers Historical Experience onto Alamo Plaza

  1. An interesting and educational concept, however, some of the information is problematic.
    The design of the Church, specifically the crenelations or battlements atop the western face, are based more on imagination than fact. The height of the gun position at the rear of the Church is also based on imagination and not factual evidence. Portions of the west wall are also questionable. There is no evidence of a ‘roof’ at the palisade battery; this feature is pure speculation. The reference to Davy Crockett sharpshooting at the west wall is based on speculation by Reuben M. Potter. Potter’s accounts (1860 and 1878) are highly flawed studies and rarely referenced by historians.
    The app is a novel idea with some obvious benefits. On the down side, it’s another enticement that focuses our attention on our cell phones or ipads instead of enjoying the benefits of human interaction. I suggest using this app with the aid of someone who is knowledgeable about the history of the Alamo. The app, while helpful, can’t respond to questions.

  2. Regarding Glenn Effler’s comments: the idea that “imagination” was relied on in the creation of the Alamo compound for the Alamo Reality app, is totally ludicrous and unfounded.

    To tackle his fallacious assertions, point-by-point, I can offer these in support of the vision presented by Alamo Reality:

    1.) The design of the Alamo church is based on a whole host of contemporaneous sources–not “based more on imagination than fact.” Mr. Effler evidently comes from the school of thought that presumes that the Alamo church in March 1836 must have resembled the Alamo church as it was drawn and painted long after the Mexican Army had demolished, in May of that year, all defensible positions inside the church (not to mention in the rest of the compound). We have but one eyewitness sketch of the Alamo compound during the siege, and that was drawn by Lt. Col. Jose Juan Sanchez Navarro, from his position on the roof of the Veramendi house in San Antonio. Although his drawing is full of distortions–he was clearly not a trained artist–it is full of details that are verified by the accounts of other participants. It does not show the two distinct gouges in the roofline of the church that are seen in postbattle sketches: rather, the roofline is intact, if broken only by what appear to be crenelations. He also has crenelations lining most of the west wall. Are these “imaginative” touches fancifully drawn by a Mexican officer, or do they represent what he actually saw? In fact the rooftops above the Alamo’s baptistry and confessional rooms made perfect positions for riflemen and musketmen, and the addition of “battlements,” in the form of blocks of stone, adobe, or even sandbags, would have been a smart move to assist in the defense of the front of the church. Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos had, in the fall of 1835, ordered his soldiers to convert the Alamo mission into a fortified compound. In the town of Bexar itself, he had rooftops lined with “unburnt bricks, with portholes,” as Jim Bowie described them. William T. Austin confirmed these improvised battlements by writing, “the tops of the houses were flat, with rock breastworks around the edges of the roofs, intended to be occupied by their infantry.” A Mexican sergeant who took part in the assault on the Alamo recalled four decades later that “on top of the roofs of the different apartments [of the Alamo compound] were rows of sandbags to cover the besieged.” So whatever Sanchez Navarro saw atop the Alamo church–adobe bricks, or stone, or sandbag battlements–these added-on features were also all over the rest of the compound, and the town, in late 1835 and early 1836. And they are also seen on high building rooftops in many eyewitness paintings and prints of battles in the 1846-47 Mexican-American War.

    2.) Mr. Effler asserts that “the height of the gun position at the rear of the church is also based on imagination and not factual evidence.” I invite Mr. Effler to present his “factual evidence” regarding this position. In fact that gun position was described by Mexican General Vicente Filisola as “a high cavalier or barbette in which could be placed up to three pieces,” sitting on a “terepleined” mound of earth. To describe what a cavalier battery was, let’s rely on a nineteenth century fortification manual: “a defense work constructed on the terre-plein or level ground of a bastion. It rises to a height varying from eight to twelve feet above the rampart.” In other words, the engineers built the cavalier battery atop a terre-plein or pre-existing bastion. This is borne out by looking at surviving cavalier batteries in old fortifications: they resemble a two-layer cake, the larger base (terreplein) supporting the high battery (cavalier). Mexican Lt. Col. Jose Enrique De la Pena confirmed this when he described this position in the Alamo church as “the strongest, perhaps because of its height…which appeared as a sort of high fortress.” Filisola described the church’s tereplein as being built “up to the cornice”–approximately fifteen feet high. Adding a cavalier battery to this of anywhere from six to twelve feet in height would certainly give that position the appearance of a “high fortress.”

    3.) Mr. Effler writes that “there is no evidence of a roof at the palisade battery.” Which is basically true. However, such overhead structures, called “pentices,” “masks,” or “blindages,” were commonly built over gun positions that were exposed to howitzer- or mortar-fired enemy grenades. In 1835, General Cos had fortified San Antonio’s main plaza with “a strong breastwork in each opening…[with] a piece of artillery stationed, and completely masqued, having a roof over it, and a small opening for the muzzle of the gun left in the breastwork.” There is a masked Mexican gun position on the walls of Chapultepec seen in Carl Nebel’s lithograph of that 1847 battle, and there is a painting by James Walker showing an American battery of the war also protected by an overhead mask. General Filisola described the defense work in front of the Alamo’s south gate as a “tambour,” and one of the key features of a tambour of the period was a high stockade to cover the entranceway, equipped with a roof “covered with boards,” as one 1804 military manual put it. Another described such a roof as “a blindage sufficiently strong to resist the effect of grenades.” It is no accident that in his sketch of the Alamo Lt. Col. Sanchez-Navarro clearly shows a high stockade there, verifying Filisola. It may be added that Santa Anna’s Mexican artillery was able to dismount with well-aimed shots at least three of the Alamo’s more exposed guns, including the eighteen-pounder, two of them on the second day of the siege. There is no mention of the tambour guns, or the cannon positioned at the southeast palisade, being dismounted.

    4.) Mr. Effler calls the accounts of Reuben M. Potter “highly flawed studies and rarely referenced by historians,” which is only half-true. Potter was in fact the first historian of the Alamo, and he found himself in the remarkable position of being able to interview Mexican veterans of the battle as they returned to Mexico after San Jacinto.
    Potter’s first in-depth published account of the battle, and his first description of the compound and its defenses, appeared in the November 18, 1840 issue of Texas’ San Luis Advocate—less than five years after the event. (Mr. Effler only mentions Potter’s 1860 and 1878 accounts). Potter also later gathered eyewitness accounts by citizens of San Antonio, and additional testimony from Mexican military participants. To completely ignore Potter’s work is to dismiss crucial early studies of the battle and the fort. Some of the anecdotes he recorded may be “flawed,” but many more are verified by other accounts that he had no access to. No intelligent historian can completely dismiss Potter’s work.

    5.) It’s amazing that Mr. Effler, who has obviously not delved too scrupulously into the study of the Alamo as both fort and mission, can so cavalierly, if you will, reject new concepts resulting from studious reexaminations and reinterpretations of the available documentation. “Some of the information” presented by Alamo Reality, he writes, is “problematic.” Since when is any interpretation of the Alamo not “problematic”? But to casually criticize without really knowing what you’re talking about is something else. Serious historians cannot afford to be so careless and slipshod in their work, but must continue to tackle the evidence with sharper eyes, and better-informed minds, in the overall quest for truth.

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