Smartphone 'experience' to shed light on migration to UK - from 1800s to today

Issue date: 24 August 2017

Painting of Bristol's docks in 1800s

Collaborative work between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), community groups and digital design specialists Splash & Ripple promises to give people the experience of stepping into the shoes of migrants arriving in the UK for the first time.

An immersive experience – which will be audio, locative, interactive and delivered via smartphone - is being developed for a project exploring and comparing the experiences of present day migrants living in Bristol and those of their 19th century predecessors.

It will be designed to offer a realistic insight into some of the timeless challenges faced by migrants on arrival in a new country, from dealing with a language barrier and finding suitable accommodation to navigating unfamiliar new surroundings.

To help create the experience, historians from UWE Bristol's Regional History Centre will conduct interviews with recent migrants to Bristol about their encounters and examine archive material and other documentation relating to migrants who arrived in the 1800s.

Working with the historians, the interactive experience will be developed by experience design experts at Splash & Ripplebased at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol.

The Heritage Empath project – being led by UWE Bristol - has been awarded £200,000 from the Arts & Humanities Research Council. The purpose of the 18-month project is to explore the idea of empathy as it is used by the heritage industry to engage visitors to historic sites and establish whether it is possible to empathise with characters from history.

Project leader Professor Steve Poole, Director of the Regional History Centre, said: “Like many migrants and refugees today, 19th century migrants to Bristol faced all kinds of difficulties and obstacles when they arrived – from getting into trouble with the law to hostility from local and more established communities, misunderstandings of language and custom, and difficulties securing safe accommodation. Some, on the other hand, will also have experienced acts of kindness and solidarity. What would it have been like to arrive? How might they have negotiated the streets and buildings of the city? What did it really feel like to them? Can we do anything today to enter their mental world, and if we can, is it possible for historical experience to influence and complement our understanding of situations faced by migrants to Britain now, a century and a half later?

“The experience design for this project will harness digital technologies to place the audience in the position of a migrant arriving in a foreign land - this could be 19th century or present day, or even flitting between the two. Digital innovation, possibly using an app of some kind, can make immersive personal experiences easier to create. We want to use the popularity of history in the city to facilitate a more subjective engagement with past and present events and circumstances than would otherwise be possible. We want to go beyond sympathy into empathy.”

At the end of the project, the impact of the experience upon audiences will be carefully evaluated and the results used to create market-ready applications for possible adoption by heritage sites anywhere in the country.

Professor Poole said: “Heritage organisations such as the National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces have shown a good deal of interest in developing more immersive, 'realistic', affective and emotional experiences for their visitors in recent years, and a number of innovative approaches have now been trialled by leading design companies like Splash & Ripple.

“However, little or no research has been carried out to assess what an empathic visitor engagement might require or the extent to which existing models have been successful.”

Rosie Poebright, Creative Director of Splash & Ripple, said: “We're extremely excited to have the opportunity to develop 'Empath' as platform for storytelling further, using the expertise of a range of academics from historians to psychologists. By the end of the project we'll have a rigorously researched and tested prototype that creates an interactive and potentially transformative experience for our audience.”

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