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The Fort Vancouver Mobile Project

Enhancing Historical Interpretation through Mobile Technologies

Founded in 1824-1825, Fort Vancouver was constructed along the northern bank of the Columbia River and became a central stopping point on the Oregon Trail, serving simultaneously as an emporium, a supply depot for fur trade operations, a major agricultural center, and a headquarters for the British Hudson's Bay Company.  Now, residents and visitors in and near Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington can visit a replica at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (, complete with its palisades and reconstructed buildings.

While park officials had started exploring using some technologies for interpretation, such as podcasts, it was a group of scholars at nearby Washington State University who were interested in the potential for digital storytelling for public history.  These scholars began to gather collaborators and funding for a proof-of-concept application merging historical interpretation with mobile technologies, and found the 200,000+ objects discovered over 50 years of archaeological digs at the Fort Vancouver site a perfect collection to test their approach.  Through the support of an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant (HD-51330-11), this collaborative team of researchers, public historians, and designers -- led by Brett Oppegaard and Dene Grigar at WSU -- further developed the interactive app for the iOS and Android platforms that provided in-depth interpretations of the area, focusing on gender issues and domestic life at the site during the mid-1800s. The Fort Vancouver Mobile app is the first interpretive app (distinguished from the many expository-focused digital projects) in the National Park Service system.

The grant also funded unique mobile storytelling prototypes to serve as models for the field.  Oppegaard, an Assistant Professor of Communication, was curious to explore how a location-aware mobile app might impact how visitors interacted with the historical sites, including The Village, a residential section just outside the gates of the fort. As this video explains, Dr. Oppegaard and his team discovered an increased level of engagement from users of the mobile app, with user interest jumping from an average of 6 minutes when they were using no additional media to explore a location to 23 minutes when using the first app prototype.  The amount of time users engaged with a site increased to 30 minutes when using the second iteration of the app prototype.

Through a subsequent award, Dr. Oppegaard and his collaborators are continuing to develop the app in such a way that it can be used offsite, potentially opening Fort Vancouver's gates to thousands of virtual visitors.   At the end of this more recent funding cycle, information about this second app--which is focused on school-age children--will be made available on the NEH educational website, EDSITEment.  The current version of the app, available on Google Play and iTunes, will serve as a perfect complement to your visit to the park site.

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