First published in 1945, Ebony magazine has been a part of the national culture for decades. One example is through recipes – not uncommon for a cultural magazine. For decades, those recipes were tested in a very memorable kitchen. The kitchen was nearly demolished in 2018 but was rescued by Landmarks Illinois. Now you can visit it in person – or augmented reality.
The actual kitchen is part of a display running now through June 19 at the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York as part of their exhibit African/American: Making the Nation’s Table in partnership with The Africa Center. A partnership with Meta and artist Charles “Ceej” Johnson allows visitors from anywhere to see an augmented reality model of the site through Spark AR.
How to Tour the Kitchen
The experience can be found by visiting the Museum of Food and Drink in Facebook or Instagram mobile apps. Both accounts have a post announcing the effect that you can find by scrolling through their timeline. You can also tap on the icon that looks like diamonds or sparkles – this brings you to AR experiences made by the page.
You can launch the augmented reality experience anywhere that you have a decent internet or data connection, but you will get the most out of it if you’re somewhere you can walk around. You can navigate with just your fingers, but it’s more fun to walk around.
“When you do this at the museum itself, there is also a QR code that you can scan to see the effects on your phone,” Meta’s Global Head of Multicultural Communications, Sonia Sroka, told ARPost.
With your world-facing camera activated, an augmented reality reconstruction of the iconic Ebony Test Kitchen appears around you. If you’re here for the AR and don’t know much about the kitchen, that’s okay – a voiceover from past Ebony Food Editor Charlotte Lyons will walk you through it.
“The recordings are very authentic – they’re from the museum,” said Sroka. “It’s more immersive and it makes the whole experience richer.”
Unlike a physical tour of the actual kitchen, feel free to reach out and touch things. You can even turn on a number of appliances in the reconstructed kitchen. Ceej worked closely with MOFAD to make sure that the interactions were caring and accurate, making sure to make the kitchen’s unique in-wall toaster oven one of the function augmented reality items.
When you’re done exploring, switch to the “selfie camera” on your mobile device to take a photograph of yourself against some of the most recognizable walls in food history.
“It does become just this very sharable experience,” said Sroka. “I want people to take more photos and do more things with filters.”
Celebrating Heritage With Augmented Reality
This augmented reality experience is the second spearheaded by Sroka, with the first during Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month last year. The program was launched in part to bring attention and accessibility to museums that had seen decreased foot traffic due to COVID-19. It was also launched within Meta with the hope of helping people understand the human impact of XR.
“Focusing on heritage makes the metaverse more tangible for people … People don’t understand what it is, who’s making it, how it’s going to impact their lives,” said Sroka. “The metaverse is not just wearing headsets, it’s virtual spaces that we can use to explore and learn.”
The initial project in the program worked with the Mexican Museum to hang virtual copies of 2D art in a physical space. It was impactful, but this time Sroka wanted to do something a little more challenging with augmented reality.
“I sat down with [MOFAD] and told them the background of the program and how it came about because it’s still kind of in its infancy,” said Sroka. “They loved our effects and thought it would be great to partner.”
The Ebony Test Kitchen was selected because an experience would draw attention to the physical installation people could visit in person and be something people could try remotely. Que Ceej, an artist who has been working with SparkAR since it was in beta and came to the attention of the SparkAR Partner Program creating mini-activations for streetwear brands.
Building a Kitchen in SparkAR
“One of the first things that was super challenging about this was that we did it only off of photos. We didn’t have a floor plan or dimensions, or anything like that,” Ceej told ARPost. “Our goal was to match the colors, match the vibe and the energy of the physical space.”
MOFAD provided high-quality images and video to get the colors, as well as the scale right. While the augmented reality experience is recognizable and realistic, it is not a photographic reconstruction.
“If we were to do a 360 scan, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to dive into the interactivity of each element,” said Ceej. “I wouldn’t be able to separate the spools of the stove, it would be harder to use emitters to simulate water or smoke.”
Ceej worked closely with the museum to ensure that his reconstruction was historically accurate. More complications came from file size limitations and time restraints. The experience utilizes simple shapes, compressed textures, and particle emitters that could be both impactful and lightweight. Some things still didn’t fit.
“The large wall oven, that’s one thing that I would have loved to activate,” mused Ceej. There’s also a television in the sitting room that Ceej envisioned playing gifs of Ebony branding or even static but it wasn’t meant to be. “We decided with time restrictions that we wanted to prioritize key elements.”
In the end, Ceej is happy with the project and looks forward to creating more immersive experiences for other organizations.
“I don’t think that there are many fully immersive AR filters that you can really walk around in,” said Ceej. “Moving toward the future, that should be leveraged a lot more than it is.”
Visit Any Time
If you happen to be in New York over the next few months, consider seeing the actual Ebony Test Kitchen in the Museum of Food and Drink. If that kind of travel isn’t in your itinerary right now, we highly recommend opening Facebook or Instagram and checking out the experience in augmented reality.
And, while the physical exhibit will leave MOFAD in July, the augmented reality experience will remain available on the museum’s Instagram and Facebook pages, as well as among the existing catalog of Spark AR effects.