The SCARLET Project: Marrying Augmented Reality and Special Collections

The following feature on the SCARLET (Special Collections using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching) project discusses its creation and development, as well as its use of Augmented Reality (AR) in education, including content development, evaluative processes, and the implemented technology.  Pedagogy has driven the project and its use of AR, not the other way around; however, this article focuses more directly on the technological side of things, in part, because of the audience of the newsletter, namely those who are a part of the learning technologies community.


Augmented Realityis an interesting and powerful application of a cutting-edge technology, which is increasingly making inroads into many different contexts, including education, and is poised to have a significant influence over existing and developing pedagogical practice.  Prior to this move, it was most often applied to sports programming and gaming: systems which allow us to share in the experience from the perspective of the person in the sport or from within the game.  Charles Arthur, Technology Editor for The Observer explains AR as: “tak[ing] a real-life scene, or (better) a video of a scene, and add[ing] some sort of explanatory data to it so that you can better understand what’s going on, or who the people in the scene are, or how to get to where you want to go” (21 Mar 2010).  However, Arthur also explains that AR has actually been around since the 1970s, with “art installations that overlaid real spaces with something virtual … in particular the work of pioneering computer artist Myron Krueger” (ibid).  The explosion, so to speak, with its potential is that the means of getting AR to people have become much easier and cheaper, which is turn has meant “the technology powerful enough to make use of it is owned by millions of people, often in the palms of their hands” (ibid).  Relatedly, The Horizon Report (2011) pointed out that AR was a technology to watch over the next 3 years.  Because of its ability to “intersect with practices in mainstream popular culture, [it will be a] significant tool for education for many years …” (5).

The SCARLET Project’s Aims

With this educational context in mind, in 2011 Mimas, the JISC-funded data centre at the University of Manchester, applied for and were awarded funding under JISC’s Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants programme to develop an AR application for Special Collections. This resulted in the SCARLET project (, which addresses one of the principal obstacles to the use of Special Collections in teaching and learning – the fact that students must consult rare books, manuscripts and archives within the controlled conditions of the John Rylands Library reading rooms at Deansgate. The material is also isolated from much of the secondary, supporting materials and the growing mass of related digital assets. More often than not, this is an unfamiliar and frustrating experience for students accustomed to an information-rich, connected wireless world, and consequently is a barrier to their use of Special Collections.

Screenshot from video showing the SCARLET app in use
Figure 1: Screenshot from the user journey video showing how the app is used

The SCARLET project is addressing these issues directly, bringing Special Collections into the age of the app. AR enables students to experience the best of both worlds: to enjoy the sensory delights of seeing and handling original materials, while enhancing the learning experience by ‘surrounding’ the object with digital images, online learning resources and information on the items before them and on related objects held in the library and elsewhere. AR makes the sessions more interactive, moving towards an enquiry-based learning model, where students are set real questions to solve, through a combination of close study of the original material and by downloading metadata, images and secondary reading, to help them interrogate and interpret the material. One of the benefits of the project is that it makes it more feasible to host ‘taster’ sessions for first and second years, enabling them to engage with Special Collections materials without requiring extensive handling of the original books and manuscripts, and thus addressing conservation concerns about the over-exposure of fragile objects. It will also help more advanced students across that difficult transition from mediated learning to independent research. Students are being encouraged to use the SCARLET app in the Library’s Reading Room, while they are undertaking detailed research on a particular object or group of items from the collections. The app is not intended to spoon-feed them with information in order to answer research questions; rather, it can prompt lines of enquiry and help students to contextualise the objects in front of them and to compare them with related material elsewhere in the world.

AR has never previously been used to enhance the experience of using Special Collections material for teaching and learning.  It has potential to revolutionise teaching and learning in this field, helping students engage with primary source materials and linking fragile and rare objects with online resources. An additional, unexpected benefit of the SCARLET project is that it is changing perceptions of Special Collections, which are now regarded as being at the leading edge of information technology and pedagogy, setting an example for colleagues in other areas to follow.

The Pilot Course – “Beyond the Text: The Book and Its Body”

Dr. Guyda Armstrong’s “Beyond the Text: The Book and Its Body” was selected for the pilot course, developing content around 10 key editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  With the aid of Matthew Ramirez, who worked to develop the app, all content came from Dr. Armstrong’s course materials, keeping a clear eye on how the existing resources could be integrated with the technology to ensure cohesiveness.  Following on, a different course with 1st year undergraduates is in place, as well as plans for two additional modules: AR with Milton’s Paradise Lost and another on the world-renowned oldest fragment of the Gospel of John, dated from the first half of the second century C.E.

The Dante editions, of which the pilot course only used 10 of the existing 15 in the collection, are each distinct in their own right and range from the 1472 Foligno, the 1487 Brescia, all the way up to the 1555 Venice.  Their presence in Special Collections means scholars could make physical comparisons among them; however, Dr. Armstrong is also using AR to do the same thing: make scholarly comparisons of the physical objects and make that work available to the students in the course, indeed allowing them to also make comparisons and draw conclusions about these amazing artefacts!  The potential is amazing, and students get the opportunity to do some of the “dirty work” so to speak of looking at the texts directly, while also having a guide to the other materials which can aid in the analytical and interpretative processes essential in the field.

As SCARLET progresses, we expect that lessons learned from development can be successfully applied to the wider teaching and learning community. The team sees great potential in applying SCARLET principles across a broader range of subject areas, and we are looking for opportunities to exploit this technology further. There’s already interest from disciplines such as Medicine, and we’d like to encourage others to get in touch with us.

We will make all project outputs available under Creative Commons licences, and we aim to achieve a solution that could be implemented by other libraries, archives and museums with Special Collections material. We have created a simple toolkit, in addition, to assist others in the creation of projects using Augmented Reality in any context, to enable teachers and librarians to construct their own tailored AR applications, without extensive technical expertise or dedicated IT support.  A methodology that can be easily replicated within other contexts is a key driver in order to benefit others who want to develop AR applications to support teaching and learning.   Through existing networks of academic and library staff, we will involve a wider community of practitioners in the development of the AR project, inviting them to attend workshops on the application of AR in teaching within the Special Collections environment and involving them in the testing of the project outputs.

Student Feedback

We ran focus groups for the pilot course of 3rd years, as well as for three different groups of first year students, who are about to begin the element of their studies using the SCARLET app: Dr. Guyda Armstrong’s “Contemporary Italian Culture”, as well as Dr. Roberta Mazza’s “Advanced Greek 3” and “The Body and Society: Christianity and the West.”  The responses from the students have been overwhelmingly positive.  One student, who initially stated that she had no real experience using mobile apps, pointed out to the rest of the group that it took her only 2 minutes to download the app for her android phone.  Most felt that the use of AR in an educational context was particularly helpful in the evaluation of key resources, assisting in their research endeavours.

Students then had an opportunity to use the app for themselves with iPads supplied by the John Rylands Library.  While working with the technology and learning about the Dante editions and the fragment of St. John’s Gospel, they said:

  • “This is very handy to learn more about the actual thing, but I want to read even more of the surrounding material now.”
  • “At first it seems like just a toy, but then you see how interactive it is!”
  • “It’s great as a starting point, but then it gives you the chance to go more in-depth, too.”
  • “This is better than just passing a book around, where you can’t really spend much time actually looking at the book, since you have to give it quickly to someone else.”
  • “This gives us the ability to move forward and enhance active learning, as with Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL).”
  • “This could even be good for 13-14 year olds, if you included audio translations, too.”
  • “It would be cool to use this with some of the “less famous” stuff in Special Collections.”

Project Outputs

In keeping with the bid, as well as lessons learned through the evaluative processes, the following are the direct outputs, including:

  • A suite of fully-developed AR applications (Marker – QR Codes and/or Marker-less – Using AR Browser) demonstrating the potential for using AR to enhance the learning experience within Special Collections libraries, across a range for disciplines and formats.
  • A Tool-kit to enable teachers, librarians and learning technologists to construct their own tailored AR applications.  Although developed within the context of Special Collections, this toolkit will have applications for the wider community.
  • A Project blog documenting the progress of the AR project and disseminating the lessons of the project within the academic, library and IT communities, and
  • YouTube videos on the development of our project and demonstrating AR’s potential to enhance learning within Special Collections, from a student and academic perspective.

Outgrowths from SCARLET


SCARLET+ is a new project with staff at the University of Sussex and the Craft Study Centre at the University for the Creative Arts to trial the AR toolkit with two different types of collections (mass observations and visual arts). This will result in 2 case studies of embedding AR in the wider community and further examples of AR applications. This project starts on 1st May 2012 and finishes April 2013.

The Colombian Printing Press

Moving onward from the original concept of SCARLET, the Team have developed a short-term project with the John Rylands Library staff, which goes beyond the remit of the existing SCARLET project in order to test the concept of AR with a wider audience. The project has delivered an application to demonstrate a proof of concept.  The John Rylands Library contains a fine ancient and recently restored Colombian printing press, and this is the centre-piece of this part of the project. This object is visual, and we have a video of the press in action.  The app links to the First Impressions website and to some of the printed book collections, with useful information about type, ink, and book design.

The specific objectives of this part of the project were to create an AR app similar to the one developed for Special Collections and to assess whether use of AR can improve the John Rylands Library visitor experience; building on the second, the Team also wanted to determine the value of AR and its potential to improve understanding of an object within the library.

The Technical Structures of SCARLET

At the project outset, the technical architecture and choice of software were important considerations to its success.  Because the project would not be developing any technical code or services, building on existing frameworks available as open source, such as AR browsers, was deemed imperative.  To build on previous Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant (LTIG) projects, such as “QR codes at Bath” (2009), and “Unlocking the Hidden Curriculum” (2010) at the University of Exeter,  it was important to follow best practice and software recommendations that had been informed through their findings and technical reports.  The JISC Observatory report, “Augmented Reality for Smartphones” was paramount in selecting the AR browser to deliver SCARLET’s content.

In addition to considering the architecture, there were some issues to overcome which could inhibit or constrain its use.  Back in April, 2011, there was a proliferation of AR browsers with development APIs; however, because of the environmental constraints of the technology being used inside the John Rylands Library, the traditional format of augmented delivery – POIs (Points of Interest) mapped to GPS coordinates was problematic.  Mobile devices would struggle to detect accurate location-based data with their inbuilt GPS.  In some cases, they would not work at all because of compass interference.  At that time, Junaio was the only AR browser capable of harnessing optical tracking functionality, linking 3D models, videos and information to images in the form of “GLUE” based channels; this ability, coupled with an open API and compatibility on Android, iOS and Nokia devices were the determining factors.  Since then, other AR browsers, such as Aurasma and Layar, have launched similar functions; however, the technology within Junaio is far more mature, since it has been available to developers for over a year.

The image recognition aspect of the technology has increased dramatically enhancing the user experience and providing a more stable environment. While ambient conditions such as lighting still present a challenge to the effectiveness of the AR experience, the rapid evolution of the technology should overcome this in a relatively short space of time. Indeed, recent advances in functionality allow identification of real life 3D objects (rather than pseudo 3D examples tied to 2D planes) that opens up new and exciting possibilities in terms of AR applications for Special Collections. Interoperability has always been an important concern going forward, and the ability to make the learning experience platform independent is becoming realised with options to export into HTML5 and Javascript based frameworks.   It is envisaged that by the end of the project, an application of base-level standards will be ubiquitous across most AR browsers, enabling outputs to be interoperable regardless of delivery choice.


All in all, the student and public responses to the SCARLET project have been constructive and critically positive, and this feedback has directly informed the project’s evolution and continued development.  The Team SCARLET blog cover a great deal of the information surrounding its development and evolution, including discussions surrounding conferences, focus groups, and content development, with videos showing the academics speaking about their work on the project.  In an experience where the technology was to remain largely invisible, allowing for a direct experience with interesting and precious objects, which are largely removed from the public, SCARLET remains a unique offering in Higher Education, both in the UK and abroad.  If anyone has any enquiries about the Project, or the use of Augmented Reality, we encourage you to get in touch with Jo Lambert, SCARLET Project Manager:


Arthur, Charles (2010). “Augmented Reality: It’s Like Real Life, but Better.” The Observer 21 Mar 2010:

Johnson, L, R. Smith, H, Willis, A Levine and K. Haywood. (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.


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