Go back in time at Carnegie Library with this new Carnegie Mellon app

Want to go back in time? 

Just step inside Carnegie Library to hear the South Side Polka, listen to historic radio programs, and spot historic artwork. With help from a smart device and a CMU student-developed app, visits to the main branch of the Carnegie Library just got multidimensional. 

It’s called an augmented reality tour, and now through Aug. 2, visitors to the Oakland library have a chance to explore the historic building in a whole new way — and with a handheld guide at their disposal.

Here’s how it works:  

You download an app on your smartphone or tablet using the iTunes App Store or Google Play. (If you don’t have a smart device, the library does, and you can borrow one.) Then the game — and sensory experience — begins.

With the app, your device becomes a portal of sorts, guiding you to art installations meant to transport you into the Pittsburgh of the past. There’s a hand movement-activated instrument that combines the “South Side Polka” with sounds from Hofbrauhaus’s beer hall. There’s a sound corridor along the library’s stacks that takes you through a series of compositions inspired by the “Shadyside Mazurka,” an 1873 Polish dance song. There’s also a phone booth installation that allows visitors to listen to historic radio programs simply by dialing up a year.

*Old-timey radio voice* But that’s not all. 

Katherine Tender, a senior student of art at CMU’s School of Art, demonstrates the Carnegie’s Monocle app. COURTESY OF CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY.

The app also asks users to find certain works of art — this is a scavenger hunt, after all — among the library’s second-floor collection. When the right fresco, sign, painting, or object is located, a dancing animation pops up on the device. 

The project is just the latest example of efforts to make libraries like Carnegie feel less antiquated, more contemporary and to make visits more of an experience. 

“Some patrons primarily visit our first floor to pick up books,” said Tara Goe, one of the Carnegie Library’s music, film and audio librarians. “We hope this art walk will bring attention to our rich music collection and entice people to explore areas where they might be less familiar.”

This includes the library’s stable of loanable electronic instruments and its collection of historic sheet music. 

“Our initial intent with this collaboration was to tie Pittsburgh’s musical past (our historic sheet music collection) to its present (our musical instrument lending library),” Goe told The Incline by email. “We approached the initiative as a fun and meaningful way to collaborate with our community — since CLP -Main is in Oakland, our community just happens to include a lot of incredibly thoughtful and curious university students.”

And the app driving all of this discovery was developed by students — 16 from a CMU real-time animation class and 16 from a CMU experimental sound synthesis class. The students researched the library’s collections and “activated those collections through a mixed-reality tour driven by an augmented-reality app,” CMU said in a press release.

The result is what Johannes DeYoung, an assistant professor with CMU’s School of Art, calls a “mixed reality art-walk experience.”

And while the students involved hope the project will inspire people to make their own art installations, the library hopes people will also be inspired to see the library and the library experience in a new, more multidimensional way.