Visiting the Alamo can be a dry, overcrowded experience. Looking at it in person, it might be easy to lose sight of the significance of the historic building — the loss of life in that standoff and how it influences the Texas we know today. San Antonio-based company Alamo Reality is bringing the Alamo, and all the history that comes with it, to anyone armed with curiosity and a smartphone.
By downloading the Alamo Reality app, a user can take any open space — a park, a backyard or anywhere safe from traffic — and virtually explore the original battle site of the Alamo to scale using a phone. Rather than creating a virtual reality app, in which a headpiece is required for the experience to be fully immersive, Alamo Reality implements an augmented reality approach. Think Pokemon Go — by using the phone’s camera, the app creates a portal the user can enter to walk within the space of the Alamo.
Michael McGar, president of Alamo Reality, has extensive experience with the Alamo, dating to 1994 when he created educational software about the historic site on a two-disc CD-ROM titled Alamo: Victory or Death. Using the information gathered for the CD-ROM as a starting point, McGar enlisted the guidance of Stephen Hardin and Gary Zaboly, two noted Alamo historians, to make the most accurate re-creation of the Alamo to explore.
Although the CD-ROM had high production values, featuring narration from Dan Rather, Sissy Spacek and other famous Texans, the experience of exploring the Alamo was limited to the technology available in the mid-'90s.
“The CD-ROM was a desktop experience, so you’re kind of sitting there,” McGar tells us while in Dallas promoting the app. “We had it where you could fly in the Alamo and go around into different locations, but to be able to stand inside the Alamo is a totally different experience. And for me, developing the application, I was around the developers as it was being built, so I was testing stuff, I saw it all the time, and so I thought I was inured to that impact to what it would be. But when I actually went to the Alamo and stood in the right spot, turned and saw the Alamo church, it was like the hairs stood up on the back. I couldn’t believe it.”
Leslie Komet Ausburn, vice president of public relations for Alamo Reality, worked with McGar since the inception of the app. In 2017, McGar and Ausburn were collaborating on another project when Ausburn learned of McGar’s previous work on the CD-ROM. Knowing the tricentennial for San Antonio was happening the next year, Ausburn asked McGar how he would create the same educational software with current technology. A year later, they had a finished app.
“I’m a parent,” Ausburn says, “so knowing how my kids understood history and how you can make it something that they want to know more about, that’s hard today. Kids are different, and the more you get them engaged, the more they learn, the more they want to learn on their own. I think technology can be seen as a negative, but I think in the world that we live, let’s find ways to really benefit and push kids to learn more, do more and explore.”
Kim Murphree, an educational technology trainer at Mansfield ISD, also sees the value in the teaching capabilities of Alamo Reality’s product.
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“This is an exciting thing where students are able to experience that history firsthand in a way that hasn’t really been available in the past,” Murphree says.
The app is free to download, and a $1.99 purchase is required to unlock premium content. Additionally, the company’s website offers an online store with items such as a 3D augmented reality board set, a roll-up board that transforms into interactive moving areas with use of the app, and interactive trading cards, in which characters share pieces of history.
The main area of focus will remain on educating, and McGar is working on adapting the product into a comprehensive teaching tool.
“We’re creating a really compelling education package,” McGar says. "We’re not just doing social studies curriculum. We’re putting English language arts skills into it, also math. ‘Here’s an 18-pound cannon, it shot a ball a mile: What does it take to shoot an 18-pound ball a mile?’”