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Making it fly: how redLoop brought a WWII bomber back to life

Stand in Trafalgar Square and open the Apparition Dornier 17 iPhone app, and you can see a Second World War Dornier 17 bomber. Go to Berlin Zoo and spot another one overhead. A third can be found at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. "I can put one anywhere," says Andy Bardill, the Director of redLoop, the Middlesex design and innovation centre, as he clicks on a map of the world on his laptop, "or I can take one away".

The only real Dornier 17 known to have survived now sits in two polytunnels at the RAF Museum in Cosford, Shropshire. It crashed into the Channel during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and stayed there until June 2013, when the Museum led an operation to lift it from the seabed. Dr Bardill and his team at redLoop were tasked with bringing alive an aircraft that was previously of interest chiefly to military historians. The Museum had already experimented with a different kinds of interpretation and narrative at its Cold War exhibition, but had no idea how to excite people's interest in a plane that would need years of conservation treatment before it could go on full display. "We came up with a set of proposals," says Dr Bardill. "First was the shadow phase, when we painted full-size outlines of the aircraft on the ground at Cosford and Hendon to raise awareness of the impending recovery. Then came the ghost phase, when we built a full-size replica with video installations to bring this to life. But not everyone can visit Cosford. So we developed the app." It uses GPS and the phone's camera to show a 3D full-scale model of the Dornier 17 flying wherever Dr Bardill chooses to put it.

Augmented reality techniques like this give us "a new way of interpreting things that don't really exist," says Dr Bardill, and especially things that have receded beyond living memory. It opens up almost limitless possibilities for museums. By sharing their exhibits with different spaces, they can elicit stories from unexpected sources. The Battle of Britain frames the way the RAF Museum thinks about the Dornier 17, but the Dornier family's museum in Friedrichshafen will have a different perspective. redLoop is in the early stages of putting a virtual model of the aircraft there. Thanks to Middlesex's involvement, Dr Bardill says, the RAF Museum is "right at the leading edge of blending physical and digital content into a museum space". 

Coincidentally, Dr Bardill had worked in avionics before he moved into teaching and became the Director of Middlesex's Product Design and Engineering programmes in 2000. He has been thinking about how handheld devices can interact with their surroundings for a decade, co-authoring papers on how PDAs could be used to control domestic appliances in 2004. Four years ago, he opened redLoop because he saw the opportunity for the University to engage in research-led innovation: "We were always being asked to work on projects."

The innovation centre has a small group of core staff with expertise in product, service and interactive design, who collaborate with specialists from around Middlesex University. "The innovation often comes from working in multidisciplinary teams," he says, and the aim is to increase the impact of all the work the University does.

Helen Bendon, who leads MA Film and is a member of the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts, produced and directed the physical and online exhibitions. "We developed the concept of the 'hypertextual documentary' for this work - blocks of content that can be reconfigured. Visitors can experience the aircraft and its history in a number of ways," she says. "These multiple perspectives and potentially conflicting narratives are driving innovation in museums."

Bob Fields, a specialist in computer-supported collaborative working and a member of the Interaction Design Centre, became a key member of the app development team. "This app has prompted new questions about how we adopt emergent technologies in cultural spaces," he says.

Elsewhere, Dr Bardill is currently working with colleagues in the School of Health and Education on a project to investigate self-harming behaviour in young adults. Wearable sensors and mobile phones are used to measure physiological data and to support behavioural therapies.

These innovative research instruments will lead to new products for researchers, service providers and end-users, revolutionising approaches to therapy and intervention. Another project, undertaken with a Middlesex's psychologists and other partners, uses geolocation to gather data about emotional responses to the built environment.

redLoop's design internships are open to students from several disciplines, and enable them to work on real-life projects. "They leave with an excellent portfolio and are highly employable," says Dr Bardill.

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