Meet the Makers: Matt Raymond, creator of HISTORY 3D: Civil War

Apr 8, 2011
Education

Matt Raymond is the creator of HISTORY 3D: Civil War, an iPad app which just got released in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the US Civil War on April 12. Matt left his job as a social media director for the Library of Congress to develop this app which examines the […]

Matt Raymond is the creator of HISTORY 3D: Civil War, an iPad app which just got released in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the US Civil War on April 12. Matt left his job as a social media director for the Library of Congress to develop this app which examines the entire war in great depth, and uses 3D imagery to really bring this historically significant period to life.

What is the name of your app and what can users expect from it?

The app’s official name is HISTORY 3D: Civil War. It is the first in a series related to the Civil War. There are two dozen “highlight” images, essentially giving an overview of the entire war. Successive apps will deal in greater depth with specific battles and other subjects from the Civil War.

We also plan other apps in the HISTORY 3D family, drawing upon subjects where the Library of Congress’s stereo photo collections are the strongest. Two that are high on my list are photos from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and Timothy O’Sullivan’s gorgeous photos from the American West in the late 19th century.

You left your role as communications and social media director for the Library of Congress to develop an iPad app. Talk about what motivated the transition and describe your new life as app developer.

The app is definitely consuming a lot of my life right now, and I enjoy it immensely, but I’ll also be doing some non-app things down the road. In the meantime, it’s a little weird to have a commute that goes from the bed to the couch. I also purchased several terabytes of storage to accommodate the growing number of images, and their large file sizes. Plus, I create multiple backup copies, not just for obvious reasons, but also because I would feel like I let down the Library of Congress if something went wrong, because they kindly agreed to accept my images into their collections.

I never thought for a second that I would create an app, to be honest. I had had a few ideas in the past — and who hasn’t — but upon investigation of them, I already had been beaten to the punch.

I like to tell about how I got the idea, because I don’t often have a “Eureka” moment that leads to something of substance. Last summer, I downloaded an iPad app that could create 3D images from photos you took with a normal camera — two identical photos taken a few inches apart. Then in November, I was watching a documentary about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and saw a photo that I recalled as coming from the Library’s collections. I looked it up online an discovered it was actually a stereograph. I thought, if the 3D app could convert your own photos, why not old stereographs? It worked, and since then I’ve learned a lot of Photoshop tricks to hone the process.

I started looking more in-depth into the Library of Congress’s online stereographs and quickly realized what a treasure trove there was. The collections are especially strong in Civil War photos, and with the 150th anniversary of the war fast approaching, HISTORY 3D: Civil War seemed like the right app at the right time.

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I have to give tremendous credit to my programmer, Mike Silvers. While I had what I thought was a good idea, and a good way to give back to the Library that has given me so much, his programming talents and knowledge of the App Store process have been indispensable.

HISTORY 3D is released in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12. What should users expect after they download the app?

The app itself is pretty intuitive. Thumbnails in chronological order link to 1024-pixel versions in 3D. Mike built a page-turner that’s a nice touch. There’s a button that brings up pop-ups of historical information about each photo that, when read from start to finish, give even novices a decent overview of the war. There’s another button that toggles between 3D and 2D. And each image has a caption at the bottom that links to the original online version of the photo at the Library of Congress, to show people the original artifacts and to add authority and authenticity to it.

My understanding is that the Library eventually might put my 3D images side-by-side with the originals in the catalog. Having my own digital collection right next to the likes of Mathew Brady is something I can’t begin to comprehend.

Mike and I are already developing a long wish list of additional functionality and enhancements we’d like to have in future updates. Some of them, if they pan out, will be especially cool.

Why might it help to have 3D glasses?

It definitely helps, but the black-and-white versions, along with all of the added historical context and features, in themselves are worth the price. I realize that needing 3D glasses to get the full experience, which is an extra offline step most apps don’t entail, might be seen as a barrier to entry. But we’ll have links on our website (www.HISTORY3D.us) where people can easily buy them, and I’m also looking into ways to make them even easier to get, especially for schools, which I hope will use this to spark students’ imagination and critical thinking.

As I have gotten further into this, I’ve encountered a lot of images many of us recall from school or from Ken Burns documentaries and such. But seeing them in 3D is truly like seeing them for the first time. You realize how much you miss when you don’t look at them as they were originally intended to be seen, and for a history buff like me, it’s a little giddy.

There are a few examples I like to show people in both 2D and 3D, such as an image of Little Round Top, from the Battle of Gettysburg. The flat, original image is appealing, but nothing very notable. There’s a person on a hill, and some indistinct bushes and rocks. But when viewed in 3D, it just pops. This flat blob becomes a distinct layers of rocks and bushes in the extreme foreground, and multiple layers of depth extending to the horizon. It’s stunning, really.

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Another one of my favorites is from a mess hall in a military hospital. The picture was taken looking straight on at a VERY long table. Seen in 3D, the table looks like it goes on forever, and the near edge practically feels like it’s touching your nose.

I’ve also shown the app to people who have no interest in history whatsoever, and even they are blown away. Maybe in a tiny way, the app will help make history cooler and more palatable to the average person.

What involvement and support are you receiving from the Library of Congress?

I always need to point out that HISTORY 3D isn’t an official app of the Library. They pride themselves on making all of their content available for free, while we charge a modest fee for HISTORY 3D, as far as iPad apps go. But I approached them with the idea of donating all of the high-resolution 3D images I make to the Library for the public domain, because the 3D derivatives conceivably could be copyrighted. They were extremely enthusiastic and told me that 3D was an area they have long hoped to get into.

It might look to some like a crass marketing ploy, and maybe that’s true to an extent, but the main reason I’m doing this is because I love the Library and I believe in its missions, even though I don’t work there anymore. That being said, the more successful we are, the more images we are going to be able to convert and put into the public domain. In a way, every purchase is a service to the nation. How’s THAT for crass? 🙂

As we work on additional HISTORY 3D apps, I hope to get guidance from the Library’s curators to help steer me toward the best and most important photos, and to help bring the Library’s authority to the content.

I’m also eager to see if there can be applications for it in classrooms, which is something of a tribute to a very dear friend of mine who died recently, Elizabeth Ridgway, who was the head of the Educational Outreach Division at the Library, whose mission is to encourage the use of primary-source historical materials in K-12 education.

Will this app be available on other devices or mobile operating platforms?

It’s baby steps for right now. From the start, we didn’t consider making a version for the iPhone, given that the iPad is clearly the superior device of the two for this kind of app, but we’re not ruling anything out. We’ve been talking since the beginning about how we might extend this to additional platforms, especially the most conspicuous among them. And as the number and kinds of 3D devices proliferate, even beyond mobile platforms, I see those as places I’d also like to go.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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