University of Toronto student app takes you back in time in Kensington Market

Students at the University of Toronto have created the app "Toronto Kensington Market Hidden Histories," which features historical information about key buildings and sites in Kensington Market.

The app uses augmented reality to tell the story of a historic Toronto neighbourhood

Professor Siobhan O'Flynn (left) stands with one of her students, Natalie Simonian, to show off the 'Toronto Kensington Market Hidden Histories' app that was created through a class project at U of T. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

A University of Toronto Arts and Sciences class has found a way to bring the history of Kensington Market to our fingertips through an augmented-reality app.

The app, called "Toronto Kensington Market Hidden Histories," guides users through a tour of key locations in the historic downtown neighbourhood. The students created it as part of a school project.

The project was spearheaded by Professor Siobhan O'Flynn, a lecturer in Canadian Studies at U of T. She decided that getting her students to create an app would be a better way to build the bridge between modern technology and history.

"We were particularly interested in working with digital technology in new ways. Augmented reality just seems like the ideal way to bring history to life," O'Flynn told CBC Toronto.    

The app displays archival video and digital content for 12 points of interest at 11 locations in and around the market. The locations are displayed on a 3-D map and when users approach the locations, they hold their camera phones up to the building or site identified through the app.

Natalie Simonian demonstrates how the app recognizes visual markers of specific sites in Kensington to trigger information about that site or building. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

Then, the app identifies a visual marker of the building and that will trigger a mini doc and timeline to pop up over the live building on the screen with historical information about the building itself.

A new type of learning

"The market has so much history here," O'Flynn said. 

"It's a place that's really familiar to a lot of the university students. It just felt like the ideal way to then make visible a lot of the history and cultural heritage of what's happened in the market that you have no idea about when you walk through and you look at the buildings."

As part of the course, students did research, interviewed residents and store owners, and uncovered archival documents to learn more about the history of Kensington Market.

They went through tax and property records to learn about more about neighbourhood's history.

Natalie Simonian (left) and Siobhan O'Flynn play with the 'Toronto Kensington Market Hidden Histories' augmented reality app created through O'Flynn's Digital Tools in Canadian Context course at the University of Toronto. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

Natalie Simonian took the course as a break from her science-heavy degree. The third-year student in physiology, health and disease says the app presents a new perspective on Toronto that visitors and locals alike might not recognize.

"A lot of people when they come to Toronto just for visiting or people who just live here, they come and they see lot of the things that are new and that have just appeared," Simonian said. "But a lot of people don't know the history behind all the buildings they see around them."  

Bringing history back to reality

O'Flynn says she hoped the project would help students engage in original research while also giving them an opportunity to have a project that would hold a lasting legacy beyond the lifespan of the course.

Along with the app, there is an online interactive map of the Kensington area on the project's website, featuring more than 30 other locations.  

The app is currently available on Android and Google Play and O'Flynn hopes to introduce the app to iOS in the future.