New app builds monuments to scientific geniuses [video]


You may not see it, but history is all around you. A new augmented reality app unveils virtual monuments to unheralded pioneers who changed the worlds of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In several cities in the U.S., the app is teaching people about mathematician Abraham Nemeth, who invented a Braille code for reading and writing mathematics. (Today’s blind coders and mathematicians still use the system he developed in 1952.) Or Charles Drew, who saved thousands of lives during World War II by developing large-scale blood banks.

The app, Outthink Hidden, is inspired by the film Hidden Figureswhich has been nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie recounts the true story of three female African-American mathematicians who, until now, were unsung heroes of the American space program during the 1960s.

Mary Jackson with pen in hand in room filled with machinery (NASA)
Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer. (NASA)

The women — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — made groundbreaking calculations for spacecraft trajectories that helped put John Glenn in orbit in 1962.

Glenn counted on Johnson to double-check the electronic computer’s calculations for his milestone launch. People who want to learn more about her can download the app, which points them to sites in the U.S. at which they point their phone at a special code. They’ll see a statue representing Johnson, Nemeth, Drew or one of seven other innovators.

The 150 sites range from the National Mall in Washington to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to premier universities such as California Polytechnic State, North Carolina State and the University of Michigan.

Augmented reality first burst onto the scene with apps such as Pokemon Go, which was downloaded more than 500 million times in 2016 — a game which drew users outside with their smartphones on a quest to capture digital creatures.

Outthink Hidden is using the same techniques to draw users to history. The app was developed by tech company IBM, in partnership with the New York Times‘ T Brand Studio. It is available for Apple and Android devices.

Who would you honor with a virtual memorial?