Campus Announcements

Augmented Reality Alma Mater

Joel Steinfeldt
5/6/2013  8:00 am

Graduates and guests had their picture taken with a three-dimensional, life-sized virtual rendering of the Alma Mater sculpture atop its pedestal at the corner of Green and Wright streets. The event ran from May 9 through graduation on May 11.

A virtual image of the Alma Mater sculpture atop the granite pedestal in front of Altgeld Hall

Using a special app running on iPads provided at the site and a special target image mounted on the sculpture's pedestal, participants could walk around the sides of the virtual sculpture and see it from different perspectives. The rendering was created using high-resolution, three-dimensional surface scans of the physical sculpture at a Chicago-area studio, where conservation work is ongoing.

It was the first time users can see an approximation of Alma’s new coloring.

Wireless access was available at the site and signs with links to mobile-friendly videos about the sculpture and project were present for those waiting to be photographed or who wish to learn more about the sculpture, artist Lorado Taft, conservation efforts, and this project.

This was the first time an augmented reality object of this type has been rendered at such a large scale in an outdoor setting.

Download the App

iPhone and iPad users could download the beta version of the app via direct link or find it in the Apple App Store by searching for “Alma Mater AR.”

The app only functioned using the special target in place at the pedestal. App users could take a picture of the virtual sculpture by taking a screenshot while using the app. To do so, hold down the home button and then press the sleep/wake button. Staff at the event took photos using an iPad mounted on a tripod to take images of graduates at the best focal point.

The app was removed from the App Store after the event and is being refined for later release on iOS and Android mobile devices.


The “Alma Mater” was created by Illinois alumnus Lorado Taft. He received his bachelors in 1879 and masters in 1880. The sculpture was unveiled on Alumni Day, June 11, 1929, and was paid for by the alumni fund and the classes of 1923-1929. It was moved from its original location behind Foellinger Auditorium to its current location in 1962. View a video showing the move.     

On August 7, 2012, the sculpture was removed from its granite base and transported to the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park, Illinois, under the care of Lead Conservator and CSOS Director Andrzej Dajnowski. The original date set for return was no later than May 4, 2013, so graduates could continue their decades-old tradition of having their photo taken in cap and gown in front of the sculpture. However, once the sculpture was removed from its base and its interior inspected, more deterioration was discovered requiring more extensive conservation work. The sculpture could not be returned in time for Commencement 2013 without causing further damage.


Why is the sculpture bronze and not green and blue?
Alma’s modern blue-green and black appearance was the result of years of weathering and isn’t how the sculpture looked when artist Lorado Taft unveiled it in 1929 – or how it will look when conservation efforts are completed at the sculpture returns to campus. The bronze appearance of the virtual Alma Mater model is based on high-resolution surface scans of the sculpture, which is undergoing restoration. Researchers recreated the finish of the physical sculpture’s original materials as realistically as possible.

Why doesn't the sculpture visible in the app look the same as the image on this page?
The image on this page and in the 360-degree flyaround video were produced at the Beckman Instute's Visualization Laboratory, and took more than 6 hours of computing power to render in high-resolution. Mobile devices don't have anywhere near the same computing ability, so the virtual sculpture that appears in the app is a simpler version with fewer data points.

Why doesn't the model sit perfectly on the pedestal when I view it from the sides on my iPhone or iPad?
The target and iPad must be perfectly aligned at a certain distance to place the virtual sculpture on the pedestal. The images taken by volunteer staff were the best alignment.

What does this have to do with the research, teaching and public engagement missions of the university?
The Alma Mater AR app is only one demonstration of augmented reality as a new medium for interacting with digital data in the real world and the potential it holds for research, education and the arts. NCSA, I-CHASS, and the Beckman Institute are already working on further projects using augmented reality and 3-D scanning for virtual archaeology digs, digitally recording museum artifacts and creating interactive virtual counterparts, engineering applications, and interactive magazines and textbooks.

How will this be used in the future?
The possibilities are as limitless as our imaginations. Once the beta app is refined, Alma Mater could appear at alumni events, student recruitment events, or events in Springfield and Washington, D.C.

When the technology is applied to educational materials, imagine illustrations that come alive with sound and movement and interact with learners. Consider pointing your mobile phone at the outdoor sculptures on campus and viewing a video about the artwork, the artist, and the materials used, or pointing it at Lincoln’s bust in Lincoln Hall and hearing an audio file of the Gettysburg address.

Acknowledgments and Thanks