Augmented reality art takes over the rooftops of Sheffield, UK | WIRED

The platform and app were created by a local company called Megaverse, which works closely with Niantic, the San Francisco company behind Pokémon Go. The virtual artworks were created by two other local businesses: Universal Everything and Human Studio. The momentum of the project goes back to a single building located in the middle of Sheffield. The John Lewis department store has been an anchor in Sheffield since the 1960s, when the building was still known as the Cole Brothers store. And then the pandemic hit, the store closed and John Lewis pulled out of the building. “Signal a mass outpouring of grief and disappointment,” says Mark Mobbs, the city’s brand and marketing manager. One resident said The Guardian that the closure felt “as bad as a death in the family”.

What the locals didn’t know was that the city council had bought the building (which until then had been designated as a landmark) and made big plans to revitalize it. In fact, it was right in the middle of a £470 million (about $580 million) regeneration project that will bring new residential spaces, offices, cultural venues and dining venues to the city centre. “But with all this change being planned and the general public not knowing the ins and outs of it, it just seems like the stores have left town,” Mobbs says. In other words, the big narrative among locals was that Sheffield had lost its spirit.

To shake things up a bit, Mobbs was tasked with designing the kind of branded fences that make the construction site look a little more cheerful during the project. But Mobbs wasn’t kidding about the impact these kinds of messages would have. “Everything I write I think can be easily criticized by people,” he says. “If you try to tell people something positive, it can backfire, and the only way I’ve ever seen to transform a narrative around a place is through public art.” But instead of static artwork, Mobbs had in mind something more – dynamic.

Enter “Look Up!” The project quickly grew from an intervention on this one building to a city-wide effort to re-engage residents with their city. On the roof of the former John Lewis building, for example, Universal Everything projected a parade of colorful characters that look like buildings with little dots instead of eyes. And in the city’s central library, which owns an art gallery, Human Studio has depicted a gray cat named Hank that slowly climbs off the roof to become about as tall as the building it’s on, then looks at you with typical feline nonchalance.

Sheffield isn’t the first city to use technology to boost people’s engagement. In 2018, the Olmsted Park Conservancy in Buffalo, New York turned two newly installed signs into “AR portals” to show visitors what two parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted would look like if they still existed today. And earlier this year, the city of Phoenix, working with Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, developed an augmented reality scavenger hunt that allows visitors to learn more about the city’s past and future at a half-dozen locations downtown.

In Sheffield, the team developed the Art Trail at four key locations in the city, all within a radius of around one mile. (It’s meant to be a walkable path, after all.) The John Lewis Building is meant to be a “beacon of change,” Mobbs says. The university building can amaze prospective students at open days. And the Central Library, located in the city’s theater district, just “made sense” as a stop on the tour, Mobbs says. The team plans to soon expand the art walk to include more buildings.

You might wonder why all the virtual art appears on rooftops when so much city life happens at street level. For one thing, Sheffield’s hilly topography makes it easy for people to appreciate AR-enhanced rooftops from a variety of vantage points. But most importantly, Mobbs says, when you put a piece of art on a roof, “the sky is your canvas.”

It also makes for a solid Instagram post.

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