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Phone app brings Toronto architecture to life

It is, perhaps, the most memorable scene from the 2002 sci-fi flick Minority Report: performing a sort of upper-body ballet, Tom Cruise whips through pages of information, fast-forwards through video and enlarges stills on transparent computer screens using two-fingered, light-tipped gloves.

Less than a decade later, some of that fiction would become reality when Apple's finger-flicking-good iPhone was launched and, a few years after that, a popular video game system would do away with joysticks to transform player into controller.

But for Luddites, or those not inclined to pantomime skiing or auto racing in their living rooms, there has been little incentive to embrace this somewhat intimidating new technology.

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Until now: Recently released by Ryerson University, a free app for iPhones and Android phones uses geo-positioning for an interactive downtown architectural experience like no other.

Hold the phone in front of you, and the phone's camera shows the view in real time; "floating" on top of that view are photographs of architectural landmarks in close proximity. Walk towards a landmark and its photo grows larger in a modern-day version of the "You're getting warmer" game; tap that photo and layers of information appear. In some cases, it's an archival photograph of what occupied the site a century ago; or floor plans and concept sketches; in all cases, the Ryerson app will deliver text information on the building explaining why it's significant.

The Ryerson Architecture Mobile App is the brainchild of Professor Vincent Hui, who says he got the idea three years ago when he left the University of Waterloo to accept the Ryerson post. In Waterloo, he remembers, he could "talk about great buildings around the world, but I could never actually say [to my students] 'Guys, just go outside and check it out.'" In Toronto, he could discuss Eberhard Zeidler, Will Alsop, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, I.M. Pei or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and then point his students in the right direction: "That got me excited," he remembers.

It took a few years, however, to turn that excitement into something tangible. It was only after a visit to Innovative Technologies Librarian Graham McCarthy in January 2011 that things really got moving: "That man is a genius," says Professor Hui. With Mr. McCarthy's team charged with building the app and making it user friendly, Prof. Hui concentrated on content, which was generated, naturally, by student volunteers. "This comes back to the whole 'wiki-culture,'" he offers. "We are interconnected and students want to actively put a stake in the ground and say 'I did this.'"

By June 2011, the first prototype was operational. While the app had less than half of the 90-plus buildings featured today, there were enough to present it to an international conference of building technology educators in August. Some professors were so impressed, they asked if they could adopt the platform for their own cities; currently, projects are underway in Seattle and Las Vegas.

And it is impressive. For instance, to tap the award-winning Shim-Sutcliffe Weathering Steel House is to be rewarded with 12 exterior photographs and an 800-word document by Ryerson students (vetted by Prof. Hui), plus five interior shots and floor plans from an Australian publication. At Stephen Teeple's 60 Richmond St. E. (another award-winner) users can watch, via a series of still photographs, as the old building is demolished and Mr. Teeple's goes up. They can also compare the architect's original sketches to the finished project. At the beloved Black Bull on Queen West – a heritage commercial/residential building – one can enjoy a vintage illustration, new panoramic photographs or revisit the April 2011 fire.

As more history unfolds, Prof. Hui and his students can 'layer' those events; student project research, such as millwork drawings, 3-D models or essays might also find their way in since "it gets marked and then [the student says]'forget it, I'm done,'" says the professor. "We're trying to find ways to add value to the material they produce."

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Other things, such as audio, might be featured: the entry for St. Mike's Choir School could include a recording of a rehearsal, and Yonge-Dundas Square the cacophony of a protest. "And then you can see, yeah, it might be dead right now but look at it when it's animated with people," he says, beaming.

The possibilities are endless. The only weak point, if there is one, is that content is slim for lovers of residential architecture. However, the professor stresses the app is "in its infancy" and that category will grow "once we start going to Rosedale or maybe even towards the condo market.

"It's just a matter of getting the resources."

Perhaps these will flow when the university realizes the enormous potential of this invention. More than a scholarly gizmo, the Ryerson Architecture Mobile App is a tool that will revolutionize the way tourists navigate and learn about the city, and partnerships with large architectural firms, heritage groups and Tourism Toronto are a logical next step.

"I would love to see this go out and be adopted by anyone and everyone," agrees Prof. Hui. "However I'm just a lowly architecture prof and I just like producing cool things; pedagogically we work towards great things."


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Technical note: To use the Ryerson app as described, one must first download the "augmented reality browser" Layar. Both apps are free. Other phones, such as Blackberrys, can use the Ryerson app and access all information, but it will appear on a Google map.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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