ARTours Clearwater uses AR to bring downtown murals to life

Clearwater is bringing four downtown murals to life to bring more life to downtown.

ARTours Clearwater is a 0.7-mile self-guided art tour that uses an augmented reality mobile app developed by the University of South Florida to put the scenes depicted on a quartet of eye-catching murals in motion. 

Along the Pinellas Trail at Drew Street, “100 Years Before J. Cole,” by artists Tony Krol and Michelle Sawyer mixes images of citrus groves and the old Orange Belt Railway from the area’s past with scenes of cyclists and a man walking a dog along the popular recreational trail that now runs along the old rail corridor. Open the ARTours app to view the mural with a cell phone camera and bright yellow circles show hot spots on different sections of the mural. Tap those circles and the mural comes to life. The train comes toward you through a tunnel. The cyclist pedals ahead. The dog sits. Oranges blossom. In one section, Saturn and Earth zoom forward from outer space, along with an alien in a spaceship.

Farther south on the Pinellas Trail, “After a While,” by MJ Lindo-Lawyer and Joshua Lawyer, depicts a woman taking her pet alligator for a walk. Using ARTours, the mural springs to life, with the alligator walking and fish swimming. One block east, “Ikebana,” by artist DAAS, shows a vibrant floral arrangement. With the app, flowers bloom, hummingbirds and bees fly, colors burst and bubbles rise.

At the Garden Avenue Garage, “Comunidad,” by Camilo Nuñez and Florencia Durán is the first mural the USF team used technology to set in motion. The mural is a celebration of diversity and empowered, united women. With ARTours, women on the mural begin to dance.

Using public art to activate downtown
The collaboration with USF to create the first augmented reality art tour in the Tampa Bay region is part of Clearwater’s ongoing effort to use public art for placemaking in the downtown. The four murals in ARTours are among a group of seven painted in recent years on large, bare exterior walls of parking garages or industrial buildings to add to downtown’s visual appeal and sense of place. The nonprofit Clearwater Arts Alliance has a program where artists transform traffic signal boxes downtown and throughout the city into vibrant works of art and holds monthly art walks. The CRA and famed Florida landscape and nature photographer Clyde Butcher also have a multi-year agreement in place to host exhibits at the downtown library.

During a March 9 launch event for ARTours, former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who stepped down during a March 20 City Council work session on the budget, says the innovative partnership between the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and USF is part of the effort to draw more people to the city’s downtown. He points ahead to another large development in that effort- the Completion this summer of Imagine Clearwater, the ambitious reconstruction of Coachman Park with the addition of an amphitheater music venue, The Sound, that Ruth Eckerd Hall will manage under a contract with the city.

“We are trying to move downtown Clearwater forward,” Hibbard says. “We have a 0.7-mile art walk now in downtown. Two of the murals that have been invested in, out of a total of seven, are right on the Pinellas Trail. We think that this is a way to draw people who are traversing the trail into downtown. We want to bring more folks in for our businesses. Obviously, we are all anticipating the opening of Coachman Park in late June of this year. It is going to be spectacular. So it’s a lot of components coming together to make downtown more interesting, to get more activities for people to avail themselves of.”

A project four years in the making 

Eric Santiago, public relations and programs manager for the Clearwater CRA, says USF approached the city about a partnership mixing augmented reality technology and art during the “Dreams of Dali” pop-up virtual reality art exhibit downtown in 2019. Because of COVID-related delays, the project took approximately four years to reach completion. 

“But the persistence of USF, our CRA and our staff has made this day possible and we hope to build upon it,” Hibbard says during the March 9 event. 

The USF Access 3D Lab and Advanced Visualization Center both worked on the development of the ARTours app. Laura Harrison, director of the Access 3D Lab, says the app mixed LiDAR scanning technology and video game design. LiDAR, short for light detection and ranging, uses lasers to scan and map a physical environment, measuring depth and distance. Self-driving cars and new iPhones both use the technology, Harrison says. 

The USF 3D Access Lab and USF Advanced Visualization Center collaborated on the development of the ARTours Clearwater app.The Advanced Visualization Center then put the scans and measurements made by the Access 3D Lab into a video game design engine to make them animated and interactive. Howard Kaplan, the associate director of the Advanced Visualization Center, describes the collaboration between USF and Clearwater as a win-win. The city uses technology to enhance the experience of viewing its public art while USF students who took part in the project get valuable hands-on experience.

Harrison describes the concept as digital placemaking, where cities combine digital technologies and public art to create extraordinary public places. 

“For thousands of years, people have been using public artwork to build community and strengthen social bonds,” she says. “This practice harkens back to the Paleolithic era when hunter-gatherers painted vivid images of animals in caves to help them remember great hunting expeditions. When the paintings were illuminated with torches, the flickering light made it appear as though the animals' legs were galloping. ARTours Clearwater builds on this ancient human desire to interact and play with public art. But instead of shining torches at murals, we’re using digital technology.”

For more information, go to ARTours Clearwater.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.