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Creating the ‘Secret City’ app

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A virtual challenge > Programmers discuss hurdles of creating tour of Manhattan Project

By Arin McKenna

When the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) team that developed the “Secret City” app heard I was stuck trying to get into 109 East Palace, they asked if they could meet with me to help me out.
As Team Leader Travis Burkett and Lead Programmer Jeff Wauson coached me through the ins and outs of using the app, I learned how they went about developing this complex piece of programming.
The two walked me through unlocking security clearances that let me access the Los Alamos town site, the tech area around Ashley Pond, V-Site and Gun Site and finally the Trinity Site itself. The tour is structured to give the user the experience of being a scientist recruited to the project.
As Burkett and Wauson coached me through, I learned how they worked with historians at LANL and the Bradbury Science Museum to find photos and historical documents for the project, how they created images for the various sites and some of the challenges that went into the project.
The app functions like a treasure hunt that leads the user through higher levels of clearance. Users can take either a first-person tour on the ground of go for an aerial view of the sites. They are presented with new objectives after each clearance is passed.
“All these are just to outline the path we want users to take,” Wauson said.
The app includes an augmented tour of sites along the Historic Walking Tour route and 237 “breadcrumbs” with additional information about the Manhattan Project.
According to Wauson, the entire tour, start to finish should take only 20 to 30 minutes, if you fly over all the breadcrumbs and site coins with additional information. However, clicking on those will store them in your file cabinet to peruse later.
“We couldn’t really fit everything we wanted to, so whatever we couldn’t put in the main story, the main app, we put in these as extra stories,” Wauson said.
Following the storyline leads to little bonus features, such as 3-D views of some of the buildings and actual historical footage of the Trinity test.
Eventually the team is hoping to add more augmented tour options, including interior views of some of the sites.
It took three team members working full time a year and a half to develop the app, along with LANL historians gathering research. They used Autodesk Maya for the modeling and built the game in Unity.
“The hardest part, of course, was getting photographs. The research for what we have now is easy, but getting the lay of the land is hard when you don’t really know what was here and what wasn’t,” Wauson said.
Most of the town site and pond tech site was modeled off an aerial photo, which fortunately labeled the buildings.
The programmers then speculated on what the buildings might have looked like and fleshed them out. Sometimes they had to go back to the drawing board, like when one of the historians informed them they had made the buildings too “pretty” by putting siding on them. They were informed that in the rush to build the Manhattan Project site from scratch there was no time to put on siding. The buildings were covered in tarpaper.
“So, artistically, we got it as close as we could and then the historians let us know when we were wrong,” Wauson said.
Having the sites “behind the fence” that are not yet open for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP) was a key part of the project.
“It was important to the historians to include that, because the whole idea was for this to be the narrative of the Trinity device, and how the device came to be and all the work that went into it and all the locations that were involved. It was very important to them for that to be included,” Wauson said.
The historians also did not want the app to end with the Trinity test, so it includes information about the path forward after the war and how LANL developed to what it is today.
When asked how frustrating it is to hear someone like myself say, “I’m stuck,” Wauson replied, “It’s a little hard to hear. It’s worse than criticism, because it’s the most honest criticism. So you really can’t be angry. You’re more angry at yourself. And that’s really how I felt through most of this, when people get stuck and I think, ‘I could have done that differently and they wouldn’t have gotten stuck.’”
“I think it’s really all about getting the feedback and improving it where we can. So that’s what we’re working on now is updating it,” Burkett said.
And that is exactly what they are doing. Ever since the app first came out for iPhones this spring, the team has been taking feedback gleaned from docents at the Bradbury and at public events and making upgrades for the app.
“We had a lot of people come up at SciencFest and we walked them through the Santa Fe area and they were able to get the hang of it. Just a little bit of handholding and they had it,” Wauson said.
They have also trained Bradbury docents so they can help visitors with the app and are also working on making the “Secret City” kiosk at the Bradbury more functional so visitors can practice on that. Once that is perfected, they hope to install one at the MPNHP visitor contact station.
At this point, Los Alamos is the only MPNHP site with its own app. The other two sites at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, have inquired about what was involved in developing this one, but Wauson and Burkett were not aware of any plans to develop apps for those sites.
To download the Los Alamos MPNHP app, search for “Secret City” at Google Play or iStore. The app is one gigabit, so be prepared for a two-hour download with a wireless connection.