Augmented reality program launches at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon steps into the 21st century with an immersive tour featuring augmented reality technology.

Illustration by James Boyle

Dean MalisSa is the re-enactor who portrays George Washington at Mount Vernon, helping to bring the first president to life for the millions of annual visitors to his estate.

Malissa plays the Washington we all know—white-haired, a decorated general and founding father—as the Mount Vernon estate is set up as it was at the time of Washington’s death in 1799. But there’s more to the history of the man and the site, and now—with the help of some cutting-edge technology—visitors to Mount Vernon can take a virtual time machine and interact with an augmented reality (AR) president.

In February, in honor of Washington’s birthday, the popular tourist attraction unveiled an AR experience, featuring wearable glasses from ARtGlass, a Richmond-based company that specializes in creating AR experiences for historical and cultural sites. For the uninitiated, AR is akin to virtual reality in that it creates virtual images to immerse viewers in a particular environment. Then AR takes it to the next level by creating images that overlay with the viewers’ real-world surroundings, creating an even more immersive experience.

“We saw augmented reality as a way to tell a different story here at Mount Vernon,” says Matt Briney, vice president of new media at Mount Vernon. “The mansion itself went through many iterations—the estate’s landscape design and the different stories that are told here throughout time. With augmented reality, it allows us to expose these kind of different stories without having to disturb that 1799 landscape that we like to preserve here.”

The content, which was written and produced by the Mount Vernon staff and then converted to AR by ARtGlass, includes 3D holograms of historical characters, be it slaves or other workers on the farm, and even an auburn-haired, younger version of Washington portrayed by an actor—“action hero Washington,” as Briney describes him. The experience also lets visitors explore historically accurate recreations of buildings no longer on site and a re-creation of an 18th-century ship sailing up the Potomac as guests look at the river from the piazza.

ARtGlass has been around since 2016, working with European historical and cultural sites deploying the same wearable AR technology, which Greg Werkheiser, ARtGlass CEO and co-founder, says is the first of its kind. Most instances of AR involve people needing to use devices like iPhones to view AR content, something that Werkheiser considers an obstacle to becoming immersed in an environment. ARtGlass eliminates that by displaying the AR content through glasses so visitors can see 3D creations layer naturally over the real world. Mount Vernon, along with James Monroe’s Virginia Highlands in Charlottesville, are the first sites in the United States to deploy the ARtGlass system.

“What’s neat about this is that we don’t have to put the burden of having to do something to make the tour work on the visitor,” explains Werkheiser. Visitors can get all of the AR features by renting the wearable AR glasses and an audio headset. There’s also no QR code—often a feature needed to bring AR to life—to make the experience work; the software is able to run programs automatically as visitors approach them. “Five minutes in, [people] forget about the Star Trek-looking machinery on their face and they’re absorbed into the content,” says Werkheiser.

Mount Vernon is one of the first Northern Virginia attractions to make use of the developing technology, but virtual and augmented reality have become more popular at historic and other tourist-friendly sites in recent years as a generation raised on technology become the primary visitors. Places like the National Geographic Museum in DC and the Observation Deck at CEB in Rosslyn both use immersive technology to enhance the experience for their visitors. Werkheiser also says that ARtGlass is in talks with a number of other U.S. sites to deploy AR content, with a number expected to be announced in 2019.

As the weather turns to spring, Briney is excited about the new opportunity AR will provide not only new visitors to Mount Vernon, but local residents who can now dive deeper into the history right in their own backyard. “Hopefully they will be exposed to a different way of looking at Mount Vernon.” // AR tour, $12.50

Reality Show

The region’s tourist attractions go interactive in an effort to attract tech-savvy visitors.

National Geographic Museum
Using Oculus Go goggles, audiences can view a shared virtual experience depicting the work of explorers and photographers. In March, experience a 3D flying tour of an Egyptian queen’s tomb as part of the Queens of Egypt exhibit.

The Observation Deck at CEB
The Rosslyn attraction recently added a 4D experience that takes visitors over the skies of DC. HoverDC features a multimedia floor screen, advanced audiovisuals and ventilators to create the feeling of flying over DC’s most recognizable landmarks.

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