A new nativity scene at Edmonton City Hall has taken the centuries-old Christmas tradition into the realm of computer-generated reality.
The City of Edmonton Augmented Reality app features 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 become much more significant that 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,” Dowd said. “Does faith have a place? Yeah. But not just one particular faith in this multifaith city that we live in with so many different expressions.”
For more than 40 years, 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 allow an outdoor nativity scene once more.
But Dowds said it’s unlikely an outdoor crèche 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?’”
For the NAIT students, building the app was a learning experience technically ̶ and spiritually.
“It was an exciting experience to be able to work with Augmented Reality,” said Christopher Popowich.
Fellow student Carlos Estay added: “We wanted to also have some sort of interaction with the app. We wanted the scene not to be so static that the user could not interact in some way.”
Shawna Ray, the student who designed the app, said it took some research before they could get started on building it. “There are definitely a lot of interpretations of the nativity, so I tried a little bit of everything in there that I found.”
Estay said he learned more about the significance of the gifts of the Magi, and – as a Chilean – the use of Christmas music in Canada. Popowich said it was a learning experience for him, as an atheist.
The students worked most weekends on the project and in class. They say the most difficult part was fixing the app’s bugs and ensuring that it is respectful of the Christian nativity story. This is the first time NAIT has worked with the city on this type of project.
“We’re always looking for clients for real-world experiences for our students and it seemed like a natural fit,” Chattargoon said.
The estimated value of the nativity scene app is about $200,000. Although the students who created it still have assignments and exams to complete, Chattargoon said their final grade on the project is “an A+.”