Virtual “daylighting” showcases
geography, art

Mobile technology reveals the past and paves the road to the future

Date published: 28/11/2012 12:00:00 PM

As technology evolves, so does the landscape that surrounds us. This same technology can also reveal backdrops from a bygone era and showcase our history in innovative ways.

Kim Sawchuk, a SSHRC-funded researcher at Concordia University, is developing a mobile “virtual daylighting” application for GPS-enabled smartphones that will allow people to discover historical and geographical landmarks concealed by years of development.

“The city is a living museum full of stories and histories,” Sawchuk says, “so why not give people access to it?”

“Daylighting,” she explains, “is the process in which the pavement is peeled back and a river that has been buried is returned to the surface to create new urban green spaces”—something that is being done in cities all over the world. It can be environmentally and economically beneficial; however, actual daylighting is expensive and is not always feasible, due to cities’ present layouts.

This is where “virtual daylighting” comes in.

Sawchuk’s project, built in collaboration with film producer Katarina Soukup, involves the creation of a custom-built smartphone application that acts as a digital dowsing rod, allowing users to follow the paths of the hidden rivers, which have been mapped using archival research and GPS technology. When users pass a GPS-marked point on the underground waterway, their phones read the signal, and the app brings up a stream of historical objects, images and sounds.

“Over the course of the 20th century, we built millions of sewers and paved over the natural landscape to make way for dense urban populations and, later, the automobile,” Sawchuk explains.

The app allows users to turn their phones into virtual shovels, too—an innovation involving the creativity of researcher Samuel Thulin and the programming skills of Jonathan Grenier, another project collaborator.

“You dig, and the accelerometer on the phone triggers the sounds of shovelling, revealing a river,” explains Sawchuk, adding that there are other ways in which users can interact with the app as significant historical events appear on the screen.

The research project involves exhibitions, as well. The first exhibition—a one-night, six-hour event—attracted more than 2,000 visitors, including those without smartphones. It allowed Sawchuk to bring to the surface this vital part of Montreal’s history.

“There is fabulous interest in the story of the rivers by the general public,” she says, pointing out that some people may never know that hidden rivers once flowed beneath the city.

Virtual daylighting combines physical and computer-generated content and uses mobile phones for art and research, all while raising awareness of historical and environmental issues. The research brings the past into the present and paves the way for the future as it showcases the lost waterways, develops new technology, and also offers the opportunity to study the habits of smartphone users.

“We also learned that a whole new group of smartphone users are out there who are willing to test applications such as ours in development,” Sawchuk says, noting that tracking smartphone practices today will help map a course for the technology of tomorrow.

SSHRC supports research-creation in the social sciences and humanities, and is integrating research-creation as an eligible activity across its Talent, Insight and Connection programs. For more information, email