Downtown Clearwater comes to life with new mixed-reality app

Paint the Town, Clearwater’s arts ongoing art project, has entered a new realm of urban arts enjoyment.

The city of Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency has joined forces with the University of South Florida’s Access 3D Lab to bring a new dimension to art spaces using advanced 3D digital technologies to bring murals and their stories to life with virtual reality and augmented reality.

The USF-CRA collaboration came about after downtown’s Dreams of Dalí pop-up virtual reality experience in 2019 at Second Century Studios, according to Rosemary D’amour, Public Relations & Programs Manager for the CRA.

“We were looking for ways to create engaging and free arts experiences for folks in downtown Clearwater, and the Dali museum’s virtual reality experience became an option for us,” she explains. “We learned about USF 3D Access Lab and invited them to come and take a look at the virtual reality experience that we had, and that meeting led to more conversations with the USF team.”

Another seed of inspiration was planted in 2019, when new murals enhanced downtown Clearwater streetscapes. The largest one covers a parking garage exterior wall. Uruguayan artists Florencia Duràn and Camilo Nuñez -- the artist team Colectivo Licuado -- sketched and completed the Comunidad mural in January 2019 as part of downtown’s first large-scale public art project. The women featured in the mural form an empowered, united network and community, and are based on sketches of real women. 

Comunidad would become the first mural to get a 3D scan, and the interactive elements that USF 3D Access Labs created for the work can be viewed from a downloadable app. More information can be found at Paint the Town

Using the app while viewing the work allows users to self-navigate through a story that celebrates cultural diversity. It aims to set a new bar for tech-engaged public humanities programming that surprises and delights audiences by inviting them to experience art in a fresh new way,” the Lab’s website says.

According to Laura Harrison, director of Access 3D Lab, the software is designed to track the actual imagery on the mural and come to life. 

“There are these interactive sort of hotspots that appear on the mural when using the app,” she says. “When you click on them, you'll hear audio or in some cases you'll watch a video and other cases you'll hear music or you'll actually see figures from the mural come to life and start dancing.” 

One of the interactive elements involves paint cans playfully falling across the screen. They bounce up and release streaks of color, and a line drawing of the mural fills in with color.

A menu screen of sorts launches the app, giving the user the choice to start the experience, such as finding the aforementioned hotspots, or read about the artist and learn more about the history of the artists and Clearwater’s mural project. There's another option that includes a mural map.

“There’s an informative, art history side of the app, but it's also playful,” Harrison emphasizes. “It's supposed to be engaging and delightful for people to experience a new layer of interactivity with a mural, which normally is quite a passive piece of art.”

When Harrison isn’t animating fine art, she’s assisting with archaeological projects using LIDAR technology, which has been featured in National Geographic documentaries about lost Mayan kingdoms. One recent project involved Native American excavations in Manatee County.
“The mission of my lab is really just to sort of support and enhance trans-digital research,” added “That covers any field at USF or beyond. So really we're always looking for sort of innovative, interesting ways to use 3D and maybe ways that it hasn't been used before or digital technology.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.