Harvard’s new official tour app leverages augmented reality

A group visits the John Harvard statue.
A group visits the John Harvard statue.

The throngs of tourists snapping selfies in Harvard Yard now have one more reason to reach for their phones.

On Thursday, Harvard launched its new official university tour app, which takes the traditional audio-guided museum tour one step further with the addition of augmented reality technology.

The app, called the Harvard Official Mobile Tour, is the first project from local startup PIVOTtheWorld, which operates out of Harvard’s Innovation Lab.

It works when a user points a smartphone at one of the 23 Harvard landmarks, or “pivot points,” chosen for the self-guided tour.

That calls up an image of what the pivot point — usually a statue or a building — looked like centuries ago. When a user holds their phone up to the landmark, an old image appears. Users can also use the app to hear information about what they’re looking at.

Husband and wife team Sami Jitan and Asma Jaber founded the company after the death of Jaber’s father, a Palestinian. In the late 1960’s, her father moved to the United States. She recalled how her father’s stories of home transported her to the Middle East. 

“The founding story was very personal,” said Jaber, a recent graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I grew up with a vivid image of Palestine even though I lived in rural South Carolina.”

Jitan, an anthropologist also of Palestinian descent, said the couple’s shared love of their cultural history informed the creation of their company.

“It’s the memory of something that makes it feel alive,” he said. “This is why this technology makes sense that it comes out of a Palestinian experience.”

And in the Instagram generation, he said, what better way to chronicle history than with a photo.

Their idea won the grand prize of $25,000 in startup funding at a 2014 Harvard entrepreneurship competition, and they’re now looking for investors for seed funding.

Though Jitan said he’s focused on expanding within Cambridge first, PIVOTtheWorld has gotten inquiries from U.S. cities and institutions interested in creating similar tour apps.

For the Harvard app, PIVOTtheWorld developers relied upon institutional archives for historical images. But as the company expands, Jitan said, it must find new ways to source images of less well-traveled locations, including crowdsourcing from users themselves.

For now, there are 23 stops on the official Harvard tour, including Harvard’s libraries, the Science Center, and a handful of dorms, including Kirkland House, the former residence of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Jitan said he hopes to release another app that offers a tour of Boston, a “goldmine of history” whose Freedom Trail practically begs for the AR tour treatment.

Globe correspondent Amanda Burke can be reached at [email protected]
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