Online alumnus brings history to life through Gettysburg tour app

When tourists visit Gettysburg National Military Park they see a picturesque landscape of open fields and rolling hills. However, for three days in 1863 this site was home to one of the most important battles in American history. Nicholas Wiley, a graduate of the Penn State geographic information system (GIS) certificate program, is trying to bring this experience to life with the InSite Gettysburg app. This interactive iPad tour is the initial offering of VisiTime, the company Wiley founded with the goal of bringing historical sites to life. As guests make their way around the park, the app supplements their experience with site descriptions, augmented reality, and live video and sound effects. Collectively these features enable VisiTime’s mission of, “connecting people with history on the very ground where the events that shaped our world took place.”

From a young age, Wiley was drawn to mapping and GIS. Growing up he enjoyed computer and board games that had some element of strategy, since, “in an abstract way they are all geographic information systems,” he said. His college career began, logically enough, at Gettysburg College, where he was an environmental studies major. While there he took some GIS and remote sensing classes, and ultimately he chose to capitalize on these courses by completing the online GIS certificate program at Penn State, an experience he found to be very valuable:

“All schools should require students to learn in an online setting. Not only was it valuable academically, but also it was valuable personally. I learned to organize myself and deliver group projects in an online setting without ever meeting (fellow group members) face to face.”

Wiley chose Location Intelligence for Business as his final elective course in the online GIS program. Course instructor Wes Stroh recalled Wiley as one of his favorite students. “Nick is one of those students an educator really enjoys having in a course, especially in an online setting — his enthusiasm and interest in the experience translated into the virtual course environment.”

While in the online GIS program, Wiley was employed at the RATB (Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board) operations center in Washington, D.C. When Stroh visited the city for a conference, Wiley took advantage of the opportunity and invited him to visit the Recovery Operations Center (ROC). Stroh was thoroughly impressed by the experience:

“In the online program, it’s rare for us to meet students in person, let alone visit them in the workplace. I was struck by how versatile Nick’s geospatial perspective was — from the GIS courses in the online program to the Palentir-based ROC command center, Nick understands all things spatial and is always seeking a new way to capitalize on his understanding.”

Since completing his GIS Certificate Wiley has founded VisiTime as a way of combining his GIS experience with his passion for history. In particular he wants the users of VisiTime’s products to truly appreciate what they are experiencing:

“Our goal is for a customer to walk away from an InSite tour having experienced similar emotions to seeing an amazing movie. Not only do we strive to inform them about the past events, but we want them to be engrossed as if the events are actually occurring on the very ground they are walking.”

VisiTime’s first attempt at creating this experience is the InSite Gettysburg app. There was obviously no template for VisiTime to fall back on throughout the production process, and Wiley admited they, “spent a lot of time making lemonade from lemons.” Implementing the technical capabilities of the app was made more difficult by the team’s high expectations. As Wiley noted:

“We designed the app to be usable for someone who has never touched a tablet or even a smartphone before. The app knows where you are and will tell you how to use it. It is user friendly for all levels of experience.”

One feature of InSite Gettysburg that will appear in future VisiTime products is augmented reality (AR), a product that Wiley feels has incredible potential.

“A lot of brilliant AR concepts could be applied immediately but they are caught in a bottleneck by hardware limitations. There are sensors in an array of devices that are capable of delivering compelling augmented reality experiences and interfaces. However, these devices and sensor pathways are not uniform or widespread and subsequently neither is augmented reality software. Hardware will continue to improve exponentially, and by the time I’m a real grown up (10-15 years), AR will be everywhere.”

Although Wiley joked that he is not yet a “real grown up,” he certainly manages VisiTime like one. The small but growing company has people that specialize in history, artwork, programming, sales, advertising and geography. It is Wiley’s job to mold their talents into a cohesive team. To do this he, “tries to understand each person’s job enough to intelligently listen to them.” Once everyone is on the same page they work together to produce products that, “make learning the story of our past feel real in the present.”

Wiley talks often about bringing the past to life. That is, after all, VisiTime’s mission. This became particularly clear when he was talking about Gettysburg:

“At Gettysburg there were over 50,000 casualties in three days. When you read 50,000 or someone tells you 50,000 … to most people, it just sounds like a number. But every single one of those over 50,000 casualties led a life, they were a baby with a doting mother, they went to school, they had a first crush, someone was waiting for them at home and they probably didn’t want to be captured, have their limbs amputated or die. Many of those soldiers fought at Gettysburg for their beliefs and without them we would not be here today.”

If Wiley and VisiTime are able to bring this amount of passion to other historical sites they will be well on their way to a successful future.

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Last Updated May 15, 2014