Before Snapchat, Before “Pokémon Go,” Gettysburg’s Nick Wiley Utilized Similar Technology to Make History “Cool”
By Karen Hendricks | Photography by Casey Martin
On a sunny July morning, a family of four explores Little Round Top, jumping over rocks, reading the wayside signage, and trying to understand the significance of the iconic Gettysburg Battlefield vista.
The Crum family of the Netherlands—Elias, Karina, and their 12- and 10-year-old daughters—is handed an iPad loaded with a customized tour app by developer Nick Wiley. Pointed at the vista before them, the screen comes to life with marching soldiers and a narrator explaining the battle action. “Wow,” all four of them exclaim, in turn, their eyes opening wider as they “see” the battlefield action right before their eyes. “Is that augmented reality? Very cool,” Elias Crum says as he understands the significance of what Wiley has created.
More than 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, technology is providing new insight into the pivotal Civil War battle via an app called InSite Gettysburg.
A Time Machine in the Palm of Your Hand
Littlestown native, and Delone High School and Gettysburg College graduate Nick Wiley, 29, gravitated toward science and computers. He majored in environmental studies with a concentration in information systems at Gettysburg College, and furthered his interest in geographic information systems (GIS) at Penn State University. Although Wiley grew up surrounded by history, he says with a smile, “I didn’t really become interested in Civil War history until this project.”
Wiley developed InSite Gettysburg to provide interactive tours of the battlefield, following the 16 stops on the National Park Service’s auto route. GPS triggers audio through your vehicle’s audio speakers, as you drive. At every stop, your footsteps on the battlefield prompt interactive videos, combining re-enactment footage, photos, animated scenes, period music, and other interactive features that bring battlefield stories to life on the iPad, on the actual battlefield scene before you. As the app’s promotional materials say, InSite Gettysburg “puts a time machine in the palm of your hand.”
“Looking across this field past the road and fences, envision the Confederates amassing a mile away…awaiting orders to march…the trajectory in the stone wall to our front is known as the angle…this is holy ground, hallowed ground, a killing field,” narrates InSite Gettysburg as it sets the scene for July 3, 1863.
Wiley says it was very important to write the app’s narration in the present tense, putting visitors directly into the battlefield scenes before them. “We used [historical]information from the licensed battlefield guides, but we wrote it from an emotional standpoint to describe what you might experience at that time—as if it’s happening around you…the script puts you into the action,” he says. The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides gave the project their blessing; then-President Joe Mieczkowski provides some of the narration.
Augmented reality, or technology that allows computer-generated images to be superimposed over the iPad’s camera view, provides battlefield scenes as if the visitor is standing on the battlefield during the July 1863 battle. “Instead of visitors trying to imagine the battlefield scenes, augmented reality helps them to truly grasp it—you can see what 10,000 men at the bottom of Pickett’s Charge looks like,” says Wiley.
Telling the Story of Gettysburg
It was August 2012 when Wiley came up with the concept for InSite Gettysburg; a year of intense work allowed him to launch the app in August 2013. “I was working for the government, doing GIS mapping, and I made a connection in my brain. We could use some of the same technology to tell the story of Gettysburg,” Wiley says. “The battlefield is 26 square miles, and InSite Gettysburg delivers the information to you dynamically based on GPS.”
Keep in mind, Wiley’s concept debuted before location-based, augmented reality game “Pokémon Go.” “Before ‘Pokémon Go’ [was released], people were very surprised and had never experienced anything like InSite Gettysburg,” Wiley says.
If the name Wiley sounds familiar, especially in Gettysburg’s history circles, Nick is the son of Steve Wiley, founder of Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, which applies stories from the Battle of Gettysburg to corporate leadership training. In many ways, the younger Wiley is following in his father’s footsteps by providing access to the battlefield’s treasure trove of stories within American history, and keeping them relevant and alive for future generations.
“Kids help bridge the gap when families take the [InSite Gettysburg] tour,” Nick says. While some parents or grandparents are hesitant to touch an iPad, he says kids catch on quickly due to the interactive features, and often teach older family members how to use the app. He stresses that InSite Gettysburg is very user-friendly and intuitive with no technology knowledge required.
InSite Gettysburg is a customized experience for every visitor; buttons floating atop scenes allow you to “Dig Deeper” with additional videos, historical photos, and more. If visitors experienced every video, narration, and option offered via InSite Gettysburg, it would result in an eight- or nine-hour tour. The average tour length is four hours.
As visitors “Dig Deeper,” they unlock various artifacts, much like a treasure hunt. There’s even a “Civil War Photo Booth” that allows visitors to take photos of themselves with historical filters—even one that makes you resemble Abraham Lincoln. Nick is proud to say he developed InSite Gettysburg’s filters before Snapchat existed.
History, Like Technology,, is Constantly Evolving
Currently, InSite Gettysburg tours and iPad rentals are available through Gettysburg Heritage Center on Steinwehr Avenue. President Tammy Myers says the tours align with the museum’s initiatives; the former National Civil War Wax Museum underwent an extensive renovation in 2014.
“Our initiatives include helping people to think history is fun,” says Myers. “The museum is much more interactive today; the iPad is interactive, too. The tour has features that you can’t get anywhere else, and it resonates with both young and old…It’s a great product on so many levels. It educates people but also gets them excited to learn more,” she says.
Myers says InSite Gettysburg is on track to record its 1,500th tour, reaching 6,000 people total during the summer of 2017. She says it resonates with women in particular. “What we’ve learned is that most females don’t connect with history because we [generally]don’t memorize names, places, or dates,” Myers believes. “Women connect better with visual experiences. With InSite Gettysburg, augmented reality shows them, ‘If I lived during that time period, what would it have looked like?’”
Nick says there are three tour areas that are most meaningful to him. “When we were first developing [the app], we couldn’t get the Virginia Memorial overlay right, so we incorporated a new type of artwork, and I think it’s the best one now,” he says.
“The Wheatfield was one of the hardest portions of the battle to write about,” Nick says. Battle action resulted in about 4,000 dead or wounded there. “There was a soldier who started singing, ‘When This Cruel War is Over’—it was harrowing, depressing. While writing that story I really thought of how much we sacrificed.”
But, it’s the portion of the tour occurring in Soldiers’ National Cemetery that is perhaps his favorite, due to the fact that beloved Abraham Lincoln impersonator Jim Getty’s 2012 narration of the Gettysburg Address (before his death in 2015) is incorporated into InSite Gettysburg.
“It was a labor of love,” Nick says, “but I’ll continue working on it and updating it…160,000 soldiers fought here, and we’re always learning and interpreting the battle in different ways…history, like technology, is constantly evolving.”
To learn more, visit Gettysburg Heritage Center.
Make a tour reservation online or walk-in
A 5-hour single iPad rental is $44.99