Past meets Present in Hong Kong’s new, innovative real-time tourism app


Hong Kong

* Tourism Commission and CityU join forces on ‘smart tourism’ initiative
* Cutting-edge AR technology allows users to compare modern-day scenes with how they would have looked in the past

Imagine being transported back in time, to be able to see, hear and feel your surroundings as they were 50, 60 or even more than 100 years ago. Thanks to a new project launched this week by the Tourism Commission in partnership with City University of Hong Kong (CityU), visitors to and residents of Hong Kong will be able to do just that at 13 designated locations in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.

“CITY IN TIME is one of the government’s important initiatives to promote cultural, creative and smart tourism in Hong Kong,” says Professor Jeffrey Shaw, Yeung Kin Man Chair Professor of Media Art at CityU’s School of Creative Media, who served as the project director. “It’s very much aligned with a more global government initiative to promote Hong Kong’s cultural identity and history.”

Accessible in person as well as online, CITY IN TIME uses cutting-edge multimedia and augmented reality (AR) technologies to present an immersive panoramic comparison between how Hong Kong looks today and how it looked in the past. Users first locate the AR markers in the city via the internet or simply while strolling around town. You point your device at the QR code on the marker, an unmissable red pole, and download the app. You are then free to point your device at the clock-like face on the pole to activate that location’s information.

A slider function allows users to compare the existing view and a 3D artistic rendering of the historical view, while other functions include animations, soundscapes, descriptions of important landmarks and a unique selfie mode that puts the user’s face inside the historical scene.

Even though it might not be the first AR app in Hong Kong, CITY IN TIME is unique in its ability to showcase both the past and the present through the ubiquitous smartphone. And CityU’s School of Creative Media is uniquely positioned to make that possible.

“AR as well as VR [virtual reality] have long been part of our curriculum, which is entirely focused on merging art and technology,” Shaw explains. “There’s been a global development in AR technology over the last few years—Google and Apple, for example, are key players. CITY IN TIME builds on the latest tools and techniques and features unique methods and software developed here at CityU.”

Shaw and his team—which includes four other professors, two PhD students, five alumni working at CityU and another two working at outside studios, plus independent young Hong Kong artists Flyingpig, Stephen Wong Chun Hei, Pen So, Don Mak, Frank Tang, Kinchoi Lam and Wai Wai—began by selecting the locations. They worked closely with the Tourism Commission and history advisors Dr. Joseph Ting Sun Po and Dr. Richard Wong Tai Choi. The locations were chosen both for their historical significance and their extensive photographic documentation.

Next, the team used 360-degree laser scanning to create panoramic 3D models of each location. After deciding on the historical scene to be reproduced for each location, they sourced archival photographs and matched them to the 3D models. They were then presented to the artists, who applied new textures to the models in styles that ranged from black-and-white ink drawings to vivid watercolours.

Finally, clickable icons were added to selected landmarks so that users can access further information or historical documentation. Animations and true-to-life sound effects were also added to enhance the immersive user experience. It’s this blend of real surroundings with virtual audio-visual information that makes AR technology so special, according to Shaw, who stresses how the app perfectly aligns Hong Kong’s past and present within a 360 degree visual landscape.

“Hong Kong is known to the world as a glamorous city. But this city is steeped in culture and history, and has a lot more to offer than its great food and an impressive skyline,” says the professor, who has lived in Hong Kong since 2008. “I find it hard to imagine the city’s rich past because it has changed so much over the years. But after making CITY IN TIME, I can now see Hong Kong anew. I can actually visualise how it looked at different times in its past, which also means getting to understand and appreciate how Hong Kong people lived here in the past. This of course is an experience that’s very meaningful not just for tourists, but also for Hong Kong citizens.”

CITY IN TIME will be gradually rolled out on 25 March 2021 in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, followed by Jordon, Yau Ma Tei, Sham Shui Po and the Peak. It can also be experienced remotely via a dedicated website.