Students Tour Historic Boston Without Leaving Campus

Physics and History Departments Team Up to Create 360-Degree Experience at the City's Bunker Hill Monument

Augmented and virtual reality tech brings storied sites into the classroom

Suffolk University students are surrounded by Boston’s revolutionary history. Now virtual reality is making expertly guided tours of the city’s landmarks possible without stepping foot outside the classroom.

The physics department has been busy since 2017 expanding its Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (ARVR) project by collaborating with other departments. A new lab space enables them to teach students and faculty how to operate the equipment and create more interdisciplinary applications for the technology.

History Professor Robert Allison was intrigued by the possibilities presented by Physics Professor Walter Johnson and his team.

He brought the physics team and some of his own students on a tour of Boston’s landmarks during his popular course "The History of Boston." Physics students Jack Thomas, Jackson Nolan, and Josh Tanguay joined their History major counterparts, including Devany Pitsas and Zane Hancock, to capture Allison’s entire walk and lecture using 360-degree camera ARVR equipment. The result is a 3D panorama with expert commentary.

The 360-degree images and audio were loaded onto Oculus Go headsets to create an immersive sight, sound and motion experience that makes users feel like they are outside on the walk.

“You can have students who are not here participate by putting on the headset and it's as if they are here,” says Allison. “This has great potential application as a way to teach 'The History of Boston' course to students from anywhere in the world.”

Outside the Bunker Hill Monument

Bunker Hill Monument: Interactive Video


00:02 ready so we're at the Bunker Hill

00:04 Monument which is actually on breeds

00:06 Hill in Charlestown and this was the

00:09 site of one of the first major

00:11 engagements in the war for independence

00:13 on the 17th of June 1775 British forces

00:18 came out of Boston trying to disperse

00:21 the American army that was surrounding

00:24 the town and on the night before troops

00:27 from Massachusetts as well as I'm from

00:30 New Hampshire had fortified the hill

00:32 building a fortification here that had

00:34 not existed the day before and on June

00:37 the 17th the British Army landed in

00:39 Charlestown and began marching up what

00:42 they thought was a pasture land and they

00:44 got to the top of the hill and had a

00:46 fire from this American our children the

00:48 American batteries that did nothing here

00:51 the day before and the British were

00:54 stunned they retreat to the bottom of

00:56 the hill it's a sweltering day in June

00:58 they come back up the hill and once

01:00 again the fire opens up from these

01:03 batteries on breeds Hill forcing them

01:05 down again on the third assault General

01:08 Howe what did the men to leave the packs

01:10 at the bottom and take the hill so the

01:12 once again the British marched up this

01:14 hill stepping over the bodies of those

01:17 who had been shot on the first two

01:18 attempts and this time with the American

01:21 army out of ammunition

01:22 the Americans retreated however the men

01:25 in these opening batteries held off the

01:28 British assault long enough for the rest

01:29 of the army to get to Charlestown

01:32 meanwhile the British had set fire to

01:33 the town of Charlestown which was

01:35 consumed in a fire and at the end of the

01:38 day the British held the hill although

01:40 their objective and nothing to take the

01:42 hill the real objective had been to

01:43 disperse the American army in Cambridge

01:46 general Nathanael Greene one of the

01:48 American officers said I wish I could

01:50 sell them another Hill at the same price

01:52 nine hundred British casualties out of

01:55 about 3,000 British soul

01:57 that has killed or wounded one of the

02:00 biggest losses for the British army and

02:02 in fact over the next 18 years over the

02:04 eight years of the war some 75 British

02:07 officers would be killed in combat a

02:09 third of them died on June 17th of 1775

02:13 the Americans had targeted the officers

02:15 knowing that the officers were

02:17 indispensable to the British forces

02:18 whereas in the American army each man

02:21 was really an army unto himself and

02:23 would keep fighting so this is a victory

02:27 for the British they hold the ground

02:28 it's a moral victory for the Americans

02:31 showing they could build a fortification

02:32 overnight it could withstand two British

02:34 assault this is why this is such a

02:37 special place piers and Charles

While a headset tour will never replace the thrill of seeing Boston in person --walking in the actual footsteps of history -- it offers engaging background information and allows users to visit a day’s worth of landmarks in minutes.  

Thomas, Class of 2019, was amazed at how real the 3D images felt in the headset.

“We went to the Bunker Hill Monument and took photos the whole way up to the top,” said Thomas, “When you put on the headset it’s as if you’re walking with Professor Allison during his lecture, hearing stories of the battles that happened there.”

“I think the most exciting application of [this technology] is seeing these places in a new way and being able to see them again. You see things you might miss the first time. What we’re always trying to do in history is give people the experience of having been there, recreating the experience,” says Allison.

Students film panorama of the Bunker Hill Monument
A panoramic image shot inside the Bunker Hill Monument.

This year Nolan, Class of 2019, has mastered setting up, organizing, and understanding the different types of ARVR equipment. When he first came to Suffolk he had no idea he would be using this type of advanced technology so regularly and with such freedom.

“We actually get to get our feet wet, get our hands dirty, experiment with this technology as undergraduate students, which is pretty great,” said Nolan, “It’s not something that you’re guaranteed or expect as a science student in other programs.”

This fall the physics team also worked with Allison on panoramas of Revolution 250, an event in Boston that features reenactments of the events that led to the American Revolution.

On campus they’re working on ARVR projects in physics, art & design, biology, and chemistry -- and more departments are reaching out. 

Although it’s been a lot of work so far, Johnson is excited to see how technology will change the way people interact and learn things at Suffolk.

“We realized about a year ago that this technology is something that students need to learn about,” said Johnson, “Plus it makes it easier to do some things in the classroom, like teaching concepts that involve 3D visualization.”

And Johnson’s students are already thinking about the next step in the future of history education: They want to create an application for the iPhone or iPad that allows users to access details of historical monuments they encounter as they explore the city.



Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs