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This Year's VIA Festival Was Crawling With Augmented Reality Graffiti

With the help of the PEEK augmented reality app, Vince McKelvie's wild digital sculptures made a permanent pitstop in Pittsburgh.

Peek - an augmented reality system from Andy Biar on Vimeo.

Even though the abandoned department store on the first level of Pittsburgh’s Union Trust Building was empty, digital artist Vince McKelvie’s reality-bending creations (which we've previously covered here) were, in a way, everywhere. At this year’s arts and music VIA Festival, the department store-turned digital art gallery was one of several locations where McKelvie’s work was able to hide in plain sight thanks to PEEK, an augmented reality app.


Developed by recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, PEEK is a system that uses the camera on any smart device to enable users to engage with virtual art situated in physical spaces. Developed by Andy Biar and Andrew Bueno, Peek allows for a sort of “permanent graffiti” that, like McKelvie’s work, blurs the barrier between the real and virtual worlds.

The app runs the Qualcomm Vuphoria augmented reality program to find digital placeholders called fiducial markers. The markers tell smart devices where they should import 3D models from. The models themselves were designed in the Unity3D game engine.

“The exact concept of PEEK from the beginning was engaging physical space, architecture and sculpture with virtual reality,” Andrew Bueno told The Creators Project. The duo began the project by finding areas in Pittsburgh that could house distinct and permanent virtual artworks. Biar and Bueno noticed the potential for repurposing unused structures at the festival’s main event, held in a mainly unoccupied building that, in the 1920s, was home to the Union Trust Company.

“We saw it as a sort of subversive tool in that regard, Bueno continued. “In this location we got an opportunity to really have an unconventional gallery space with all of these historic elements beneath the surface.”

As for McKelvie’s work, the centerpiece of the exhibit was a digital rendering of a sculpture currently housed at the Carnegie Mellon School of Art. Like much of the art at this year’s VIA Festival, the piece relied on the context of a physical location as much as it did new technology.


“I think one of the great aspects of this project is how you can’t experience the physical gallery without engaging the digital space, and that marriage I think is really awesome,” Biar said.

As visitors wandered the space, iPads in hand, they were forced into a layered encounter with both the original walls and the dynamic digital creations. It was intentionally non-immersive, centering viewers in a familiar space, while allowing them to experience something completely new.

Click here to learn more about Vince McKelvie's VIA Festival collaboration with PEEK.


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