Inside the Blockhouse: How A Local Start Up is Making History Come Alive at Fort York

Posted on October 10, 2013

If you were a fan of Star Trek Next Generation you would be familiar with the holo deck – a room that would transport the crew to historical events through a virtual time travel experience.

This was the challenge we faced when we started the Fort York mixed reality experience project. We wanted to put people into history at a 200 year old battle using a mobile phone or tablet. We needed to stage this experience inside Fort York’s East Blockhouse, which was built during the War of 1812.

IMG_5886

Fort York from condo tower today. Mixed reality experience will help visitors experience the fort’s original context.

In attempting this, we faced two challenges: technical and creative.

Technically, nothing like this existed. The only similar setups were in 3 or 4 special effects studios in Los Angeles, where the setups cost millions. They would not provide the same experience without having to use dozens of cameras hanging from complex overhead rigs. This was too structurally invasive for Fort York’s East Blockhouse, where the experience was to be staged.

The Fort York system needed to work on mobile tablets, which had never been done.

IMG_5886

East Blockhouse, built in 1814, at Fort York.

Finally, the East Blockhouse was not exactly a Hollywood studio. For one thing, its 200-year-old floor and walls of wood, resting on clay, were constantly shifting.

With brilliant work by the technical team, spearheaded by our partners at Ryerson University’s Advanced Multimedia Lab, we succeeded in meeting these problems. People have called the prototype, which was shown to the public and focus groups for a month this past spring in the East Blockhouse, “holo deck version one”. The technology we built is the most advanced of its kind.

The creative challenge of the Fort York mixed reality experience was equally daunting.

We needed to bring historically accurate characters to life, and somehow encapsulate the story of Fort York and its place in the history of the city — all within a single room and in under 30 minutes.

IMG_0120_r

Mixed reality user (standing) and soldier characters (playing cards) inside the blockhouse.

My partner, Srinivas Krishna, and I share a background in live theatre. We both have experience in digital media, game design, installations and film making. So we had a grasp of some basic principles, including: how to block a scene to include an audience: the value of great sound effects; and (not to be underestimated) the utility of simple arrows indicating “walk this way”.

The work involved paying an astonishing amount of attention to detail by Seneca College animation interns. We received support from City of Toronto War of 1812 Bicentennial historian Richard Gerrard. Sound designer Alan Geldart created an immersive 3D soundscape. Countless revisions by our systems integrator Jason Bond were required for the final product, a brief, entertaining social history of the time, complete with ships, ground-shaking cannon fire and a glimpse of some of the social forces that shaped the city and the country we live in today.

Everything we learned is being applied to the second phase of the project, now in production. Phase two, for release with the opening of the Fort York Visitor Centre, will let visitors move around the grounds of the fort to experience eight mixed reality dramas from history. Visitors will also, at the same time, view artifacts onscreen, hear voice-over narration, look at maps, and read historical accounts.

To hint at a few experiences, the audience will see:
some of the landscape before the Toronto Purchase,
Toronto Harbour at the time of Confederation, and
the Gardiner Expressway under construction.

IMG_0108_r

Soldier and carpenters constructing a new blockhouse.

Guided by program officers, the visitor will interact with virtual characters from each time period.

The “pre-experience” process of creating this mixed reality experience has been collaborative and fascinating for all involved.

Written by Ted Biggs
As partner and producer at AWE Co Ltd, Ted Biggs works with technology developers and animators from Ryerson’s Advanced Media Lab and University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

How Does Fort York Taste (and how can it be Sweetened)?

Posted on June 3, 2013

The Fort York Visitor Centre is six months into construction. Concrete walls are being poured, resting on caissons extending deep into the shale rock below.

IMG_5886

Looking into the future exhibits gallery of the Fort York Visitor Centre. (photo: A. Stewart)

From early in the 19th century when they first dug wells, soldiers disliked the saltiness of the water. The Royal Engineers kept digging deeper, expecting the water to get fresher. The opposite occurred. As buckets approached bedrock deeply buried under the soil, they scooped up water of Ordovician seas held within the shale for the past 450 million years. Those wells are long abandoned, but the Visitor Centre now rests on this most flavourful Toronto rock.

Henri-Julien_FY-sketch_r

Relaxation around the old well (right) at Fort York, 1876 (by Henri Julien, City of Toronto Culture 1971.42.241)

We live sweeter, if not purer, lives today. Our water is drawn from deep within Lake Ontario. It has a more contemporary flavour. And our history is drawn from a deep reservoir of continuity and change.

The modern city of Toronto was founded in 1793 at Fort York. But the origins of the settlement we call Toronto go back much further in time. They include ancient patterns of village settlement and land use by First Nations along the north shore of Lake Ontario, including downtown Toronto – which was inhabited by the Anishinaabeg in the 1700s when the first British surveyors arrived. Their descendants are honoured partners with the City of Toronto for the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812. Anishinaabe warriors fought as allies of the crown at the Battle of York.

DSC_0728_SC

Unveiling the First Nations plaque at the Battle of York bicentennial at Fort York this year, in the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and First Nations representatives.

In 2014, the Fort York Visitor Centre will open to the public. This innovative centre will introduce visitors to the entire national historic site. The Visitor Centre will provide a taste of our founding landscape — the place where urban Toronto was established in 1793 and where the Battle of York was fought in 1813. It has weathered, with calm integrity, centuries of settlement and change, preserving within its 43-acre site a jewel-like common, green and open space.

Our steady progress can be tracked on facebook. But we need your help to complete the Visitor Centre by 2014. We have commitments from all levels of government. But citizens, corporations and foundations are vitally important partners at this critical stage. We need your financial support to complete the Visitor Centre. We will, after all, be telling the stories of centuries – of salty fear, sometimes bitter recrimination and sweet reconciliation. We promise you more than a treat.

-Andrew Stewart, chair of the Fort York Foundation

Fort York Foundation News: Update

Posted on April 8, 2013

The Fort York Visitor Centre is now into the fifth month of construction and is scheduled to open in mid-2014. In the meantime, the year 2013 contains no lessening of activity to mark the second year of the War of 1812 bicentennial. This year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York. On 27th April, 1813, Fort York was overwhelmed by a 2500-strong force of U.S. soldiers and sailors, who defeated a combined British, Canadian and First Nations force of defenders and occupied the Town of York for a week.

The events planned at Fort York for April, May and June this year are listed on The Friends of Fort York’s website here: http://www.fortyork.ca/news-a-events/events.html

The day of the battle anniversary – 27 April – is packed with activity and exhibits. Here is a quick rundown (for details, see http://www.toronto.ca/1812/events.htm):

A Sunrise Ceremony from 6 to 7:30 am at the Palais Royale on Lakeshore Blvd marks the time when U.S. invaders clashed with First Nations warriors and the British grenadier company of the 8th Regiment on the shore of Humber Bay and in the surrounding forest. The Mississaugas of the New Credit will lead four First Nations at this ceremony, descendants of those who fought in the Battle of York.

Walking in their Footsteps begins at the Palais Royale at 10 am, a 2.5-hour walk tracing the path of the battle, with interpreters, from Humber Bay through today’s Exhibition Place (where most of the fighting occurred) to Fort York (pre-registration requested: fortyork@toronto.ca)

Presentation of a new Colour to the Royal Canadian Regiment at the Legislative Building, Queen’s Park, at 10 am, will be followed by a Military Parade by more than 1000 soldiers and sailors honouring all those who died in what is now Toronto during the Battle of York, beginning at 11:30 from Queen’s Park and ending at Fort York at 1 pm.

Commemorative ceremonies at Fort York beginning at 1:30 pm include a military style Service of Remembrance (1:30-2:30 pm) and Dedication of Plaques honouring First Nations warriors who died in the battle and a re-dedication of plaques (3 to 4 pm) that honour United States Brigadier-General Zebulon Montgomery Pike and the Site of the Battle of York.

Also at Fort York on 27 April, you will be able to visit:

  • Finding the Fallen: the Battle of York Remembered exhibit (updated from last year’s Market Gallery installation) and Book of Remembrance;
  • Story of the Battle of York;
  • First Nations booths and displays.
  • This only covers the activity centred on Fort York on the day of the battle. Concerts, plays, public talks and more are being held all over the city in April and May. On June 15-16, Fort York and Garrison Common will be animated by the best of Canada’s re-enactors, bringing the story of the fort at the time of the War of 1812 to life. For complete updated coverage and information, see http://www.toronto.ca/1812/events.htm.

    Fort York Foundation Announces Lead Gift to ‘Fort York Invigorated’ Capital Campaign

    Posted on June 14, 2012

    The Fort York Foundation announced today that The W. Garfield Weston Foundation has made a lead gift of $1 million to the Fort York Invigorated Capital Campaign. The Foundation’s gift will be directed toward the rehabilitation of Garrison Common, which is part of the ongoing revitalization of Fort York National Historic Site. This historic green space and archaeological site is part of the battlefield where the Battle of York was fought in 1813. It is an integral part of the War of 1812-era defensive works of Fort York.

    Click here to download press release.

    Click here for Globe and Mail article.

    Toronto launches War of 1812 Bicentennial program

    Posted on June 13, 2012

    The Honourable Michael Chan MPP, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, will join Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre), Chair of the City’s Economic Development Committee, to recognize the many War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration events now occurring in Toronto.

    A substantial donation to the Fort York Foundation’s Invigorated Campaign will also be announced, which will greatly contribute to the current revitalization of the Fort York National Historic Site.

    Date: Thursday, June 14
    Time: 11 a.m.
    Location: Fort York National Historic Site, 250 Fort York Blvd.

    Blake C. Goldring, Co-chair of the City’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration Steering Committee, and Andy Pringle, Chair of the Fort York Foundation’s Invigorated Campaign, will co-host these ceremonies. The ceremonies will also include remarks by a representative of the donor and by James Bartleman, Ontario’s first Aboriginal Lieutenant Governor.

    After the official remarks, Garry Sault, an elder of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, will perform a tribute to veterans, which will be followed by a volley of musket fire.

    Throughout 2012 and 2013, more than a 100 bicentennial events will take place in Toronto. This City of Toronto commemorative program is the result of nearly 40 partnerships with first nations, community, corporate, cultural, heritage, and military organizations supported by the Governments of Canada and Ontario along with corporate and media sponsorships.

    More information is available at http://www.toronto.ca/1812.

    Toronto is Canada’s largest city and sixth largest government, and home to a diverse population of about 2.7 million people. Toronto’s government is dedicated to delivering customer service excellence, creating a transparent and accountable government, reducing the size and cost of government and building a transportation city. For information on non-emergency City services and programs, Toronto residents, businesses and visitors can dial 311, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Fort York’s Bicentennial Legacy

    Posted on May 20, 2012

    As the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war approaches, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is beginning to attract attention across Ontario. In Toronto, Finding the Fallen: the Battle of York Rememberedopened in March at the Market Gallery and runs until 8 Sept. Don’t miss the signature events of the Commemoration Launch week (June 15 – 24, 2012). Check out speakers and topics in the War of 1812: Bicentennial Talks series. Michael Bliss moderates a debate between Stephen Clarkson and Jack Granatstein: “Would Canada Have Been Better Off if we’d Lost the War?” (Koerner Hall, June 8, 6:30 p.m.); City of Toronto Museums Chief Curator Wayne Reeves addresses “Why the War of 1812 Still Matters” at the Toronto Reference Library, Elizabeth Beeton Auditorium (June 12, 1 p.m.). And Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor discusses “The Struggle for North America” with TVO’s Steve Paikin (Toronto Reference Library, Appel Salon, June 13, 7 p.m.).

    See details for these events, and more, on www.toronto.ca/1812.

    At Fort York, The Encampment is an interactive installation by artists Thomas & Guinevere of 200 tents, each detailing the stories and lives of civilians touched by the war. The Encampment, presented by the City of Toronto and Luminato, will be open at Fort York each evening from 8-24 June.

    For the Fort York Foundation, the opening of the Fort York Visitor Centre, expected in late 1813 or early 1814, will be the most significant single legacy of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This innovative building, designed by Patkau Architects, Inc., in partnership with Kearns Mancini Architects, Inc., has been many years in planning – -arguably almost eight decades, since Fort York first opened as a public site. It has already won a design Award of Excellence by Canadian Architect magazine.

    The stunning design of the Visitor Centre will establish a new profile for Fort York National Historic Site on Fort York Boulevard, giving it prominence among cultural and architectural destinations in Toronto. Our project is, however, not just a building. It is about the revival of memory and the transformation of a nearly abandoned landscape along (under) a raised transportation corridor (the Gardiner Expressway), which isn’t going away anytime soon. This is an example of how we an live with the urban fabric and use it for a ‘higher’ (in this case, lower) purpose.

    With their planned rehabilitation of landscape in front of, and around, the Visitor Centre, the Patkau/Kearns-Mancini team aims to re-establish a sense of the original shoreline of Lake Ontario. The line of the building will delineate the bluff that once overlooked Lake Ontario — forming the southern edge of the military reserve here (today’s Garrison Common). The innovative design of the Visitor Centre beautifully co-opts the ground under the high canopy of the Gardiner Expressway deck. The space below is majestic and calm — caressed by the sound of Watertable mounted on the underside of the deck and representing the former lake shallows environment at the base of the bluff. This grand space will, at the same time, serve as forecourt and entrance to the Visitor Centre and to the site beyond.

    The Fort York Foundation’s work in private-sector fundraising for this project from friends and supporters, foundations and corporations, continues across Canada, the United States and beyond. Our campaign is being helped in very measureable ways through pro bono announcements printed in all editions of The Globe and Mail, our official media sponsor. And we continue to receive favourable national coverage in The Walrus magazine (and its online Shooting Gallery), as well as in local Toronto media.

    We are blessed with support and good will. And so we are pushing to finish the job of raising funds during the time that public attention is focused on commemorating this war — the 2012-14 period. Please introduce us to your friends, neighbours and colleagues. Make sure they know of the extensive programming going on across the City, starting this month.

    We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to strengthen understanding of the deeply rooted Canadian history we can find here in Toronto, on Lake Ontario, centred on the international Great Lakes; and to leave behind a strengthened Fort York National Historic Site – an urban legacy for future generations.

    Call Issued for Visitor Centre Construction Tenders with $17 Million Now Secured from All Levels of Government

    Posted on August 22, 2011

    August 1 2011 – The City of Toronto is now secure in capital commitments of $17 million from all three levels of government for the $23 million Fort York Visitor Centre project. To build and open the Visitor Centre, we now need the support of the private sector to take up the cause alongside our generous public-sector partners: the City of Toronto, the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada. The goal of the Fort York Foundation is to raise the remaining $6 million needed from individuals, foundations and corporations. These funds will be used to finish construction and to fully outfit The Visitor Centre to open during fall of 2012 for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York.

    Tenders have now been called for construction of the Visitor Centre building. Bids will be received until early September and ground is expected to be broken this fall. In fact, the ground has already been broken by archaeological investigations during the past two years. Thorough investigation has occurred within the footprint of the building, which is located at the edge of a national battlefield on the former bluff of Lake Ontario. Evidence from the 1813 battle, and the explosion of the Grand Magazine that ended the battle, has been recovered along with evidence of military structures that were built years later in Garrison Common.

    The curators are hard at work putting together plans for the displays. In some cases the fort’s extensive reserve collections are short an artifact here or there essential to telling the story of the War of 1812 and the beginning of urban Toronto. Loan agreements must be made. Storylines must be written. It will be a busy eighteen months but all will be in readiness before we know it.

    Garrison Dinner

    Posted on June 10, 2011

    A campaign “kick-off” event, The Garrison Dinner, was held at Fort York on the evening of June 1, 2011 to introduce friends and supporters to the site and to the objectives of the campaign. Co-Chaired by Janice and Earle O’Born and Valerie and Andy Pringle, The Garrison Dinner was a major success, thanks to the sunny, breezy weather and the hard work of a great team of volunteers and supporters. Special acknowledgement should be made of the donation of all printing by The Printing House, media sponsorship by the Globe & Mail and the donation of the wine by Inniskillen Wineries.

    SPR_8082

    Andrew Zdunich and Michelle Barrett. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8086

    George Fierheller and Susan Perren. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8101

    Christine Elliott and Andy Pringle. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8150

    Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8156

    The Hon. Mike Harris, Christine Elliott, The Hon. Jim Flaherty. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8168

    The Hon. Lincoln Alexander and Marni Beal. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8180

    Dave O'Hara, Jian Ghomeshi, Alok Sharma. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8203

    Valerie Pringle and The Hon. Jim Flaherty. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8262

    Andrew Stewart, Chair, Fort York Foundation. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8289

    Doug and Carla Ford. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8296

    Andy and Valerie Pringle. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8400

    Councillor Mike Layton and Brett Tryon. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8405

    Neeraj Seth and Lisa Rochon. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8410

    Charles Pachter and Jane Kennedy. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8434

    Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8443

    Linda Haines and Martin Connell. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8447

    Michael and Honor De Pencier. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8485

    The Hon. Hal Jackman and Andy Pringle. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8506

    Valerie Pringle, Curtis Barlow, Anne Marie Canning. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8526

    Lt. General Andrew Leslie. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8608

    Janice O'Born and Valerie Pringle. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    SPR_8611

    Earle and Janice O'Born. Photo: Sonya Recchia Pimentel.

    From politics, The Hon. Jim Flaherty, federal Minister of Finance and his wife, Ontario MPP Christine Elliott were present, as well as Councillors Doug Ford and his wife Carla, David Shiner and Mike Layton. The Hons. Lincoln Alexander and Hal Jackman, two of the Foundation’s Honorary Chairs, attended, along with a large group of corporate, government, culture & heritage leaders and Fort York supporters. Several members of the Foundation Board were present who all worked exceptionally hard as ambassadors for the cause.

    The unique and special nature of the event itself was very evident. The Fort York Guard and Fife & Drum corps was present in full force, and added a very smart, impressive and youthful element to the historical message. The dinners, as created by the five celebrity chefs (Mark McEwan, Marc Thuet, Jamie Kennedy, Corbin Tomaszeski and Brad Long) were all outstanding, and the reception in the black silk tent before and after dinner was a scene of gaiety, enthusiasm and real interest in the Foundation’s message and in the campaign. The guest of honour, Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie in particular lent an air of military resplendence. The formal presentations by Foundation Cair Andrew Stewart, Campaign Cabinet Chair Andy Pringle, and guest of honour, LGen Andrew Leslie, were ably emceed by Jian Ghomeshi and concluded by Valerie Pringle accompanied by Janice O’Born, speaking for the Dinner Co-Chairs.

    Reaction to the event overall was overwhelmingly positive and a wonderful time was had by all.

    Curtis Barlow Speaks to Toronto Rotary Club at The Albany Club

    Posted on April 29, 2011

    On April 29th, 2011 Curtis Barlow delivered a speech to the Toronto Rotary Club at The Albany Club.

    Following is the full transcript of that speech.

    Fort York Invigorated: Why It Matters To Toronto

    INTRODUCTION

    On the western edge of downtown Toronto sits a pristine jewel of a green space that has played an important role in the history and evolution of our city and yet is almost completely invisible to many of the people who live here.

    Fort York is the site of a crucial historic battle that informed the nature of our city and is arguably, the birthplace of Toronto.

    And it is the real thing. This is not a theme park nor is it a reconstruction. The site and the buildings that sit upon it are authentic and date from 1813, when the Fort began to be rebuilt following the Battle of York.

    In fact, Fort York contains the largest collection of original buildings from the War of 1812 in Canada, likely in North America.

    That makes it unique.

    Many of you who grew up in Toronto will have visited Fort York in Grade 7 or 8 as part of an obligatory school trip. For some of you, that will have been the only time you ever visited the fort.
    Read More

    The Fort York Foundation gala event, The Garrison Dinner

    Posted on March 16, 2011

    The Fort York Foundation will hold a unique, one-time-only gala event, The Garrison Dinner on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, at Fort York National Historic Site.
    .
    The Garrison Dinner is a ticketed event Co-Chaired by Earle and Janice O’Born and Valerie and Andy Pringle. The Foundation’s unique approach to the event is to take advantage of virtually all the authentic period rooms in the Fort for the dinner component of the evening, and gather everyone in a large tent on-site for the pre-dinner reception and for dessert and presentations afterward. Each of the five dinner venues will be catered individually by outstanding Toronto celebrity chefs Jamie Kennedy, Brad Long, Mark McEwan, Marc Thuet and Corbin Tomaszeski, and the Reception will feature hors d’eouvres and post-dinner desserts by Presidential Gourmet.

    The evening will be emceed by well-known CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi and our special guest is Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, Chief of Transformation of the Canadian Forces.

    We hope to attract to the site a wide range of supporters and those in a position to promote the Foundation and its objectives.

    Official media sponsor: The Globe and Mail

    For further information, contact either Bassett Events at 416 966-4660 ; jbassett@bassettevents.ca or the Foundation office at 416 926-0265 ; info@fortyorkfoundation.ca