The City of Edmonton Augmented Reality app is an interactive digital Nativity scene, created by digital media students at NAIT, accessed on a smartphone. Photo by Andrew Ehrkamp

Edmonton goes digital for Nativity scene

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • December 18, 2019

EDMONTON -- A new Nativity scene at Edmonton City Hall has taken the centuries-old Christmas tradition into the realm of computer-generated virtual reality.

The City of Edmonton Augmented Reality app is an interactive digital Nativity scene, created by digital media students at NAIT, accessed on a smartphone. Users can zoom in and out, project it onto a large screen and interact with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the magi or farm animals in Augmented Reality, a technology that involves integrating virtual models into the real world.

They hear a voice reading from the Gospel of Luke, and nine Christmas carols play in the background. Once the app is downloaded, the Nativity scene can be viewed anywhere. Rev. Kevin Kraglund, an Anglican minister and former president of the Edmonton and District Council of Churches, provided the Scripture reading and direction to the students.

For now, the app is available on Android 7.0 version phones or newer. Apple phones will be added soon.

“It’s become much more significant than I imagined it could be,” John Dowds, chaplain for the City of Edmonton, said in an interview before the official Dec. 11 launch of the app at City Hall.

“It took me back to a time in the past when maybe a stable scene would have been set up and you actually wander through that. But that era has now gone for all kinds of reasons. This is bringing us back to that, to allow me to do that with my grandchildren, but virtually. It’s a really great opportunity to teach as well.”

“You can deploy it. You can make it as big as a barn and you can walk through it,” added Steven Chattargoon, chairman of the digital media and information technology program at NAIT.

“What I find that’s very meaningful around it, is that you get to learn a lot more. … There were certain things that you don’t get to see or experience just from standing and watching it.”

Over three months, NAIT students Carlos Estay, Christopher Popowich, Shawna Ray and Sarah Alatamimi worked together to design and create the app. It’s now part of the Celebrating Our Faiths display shared by 14 faith communities in the foyer of City Hall. This month the display also includes a clay replica of the Nativity.

The app is part of a pilot project to honour faith communities and educate the public. Already, there are plans to use AR to highlight the Hindu festival of Diwali, the Muslim Eid-al-Fitr and the Jewish Hanukkah.

“The more we seek to understand, the more we take fear away, the more we build community,” Dowds said. “Does faith have a place? Yeah. But not just one particular faith in this multi-faith city that we live in with so many different expressions.”

For more than 40 years, Edmonton City Hall had featured an outdoor Nativity scene with life-sized figures — and in some years, live animals — but it was scrapped in 2017 due to the dilapidated condition of the statues, as well as renovations at the site. The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton and other Christian communities are lobbying the city to honour the area’s Christian heritage and allow an outdoor Nativity scene once more.

But Dowds said it’s unlikely an outdoor creche will return to City Hall, citing concerns about security and safety.

“Any kind of change is going to bring with it some challenges. Is it change? Absolutely. Will there be those who will miss it? Yeah. It’s not just looking at, it’s engaging in. And to me that’s very powerful.

“This was really a great opportunity to look at that whole picture and say ‘How do we move forward in a way that’s going to reflect the importance of this season for the Christian tradition?’ ”

(Grandin Media)

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