Remembering the City: An Augmented Reality Deconstruction of Memory, Power, and Identity in Ho Chi Minh City

Student: Thuy Dinh
Major: Computer Science, History
Advisors: Dr. Margaret Ng, Denise Byrnes

CoRE Award for Critical Digital Engagement
1st Place (tie)


Cartography and architecture are official channels that facilitate remembrance in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Maps and buildings serve as sites for actors of memory to manipulate the city’s narratives and shape its collective identity. The ruling regimes of Ho Chi Minh City have leveraged control over the natural environment and the local population to create maps and monuments that propagate their ideologies and ideals for the city. This project explores urban memory and its formation, using critical augmented reality (AR) as a tool for visualization. The AR component considers the computational theory and development tools for digital historical narratives. As this study investigates the complicity of science in colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism, it also critiques the use of AR in historical processes. AR offers great potential for history thanks to its accessibility and performance; however, it requires developers and users to remain aware of the implications behind each design.

Recently, Vietnam has witnessed a growing obsession with antiques and romanticized representations of the past in the forms of cafés, restaurants, bookstores, etc. the commodification of memory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is not a new phenomenon. Nostalgia for the so-called golden age of Saigon is often connected to notions of an ideal living environment, whether that is a Western metropolis or a close-knit Asian society. Much as they are romantic and idealistic, these projections can be contradictory, misleading, unfounded, and superficial, created out of economic, political, and aesthetic expediency. What they do indicate, nevertheless, is the contested processes that result in the formation of such memories. As Ho Chi Minh was originally unfit for human habitation, how it has transformed into a royal port, a French colonial headquarter, the capital of South Vietnam, and the socialist metropolitan today is never a natural progression.

This Independent Study seeks to deconstruct the connections between memory, power, and identity, centered around the theme of environment, which can be natural, built, or symbolic. Past and present authorities of Ho Chi Minh City have harnessed their power to shape these environments to create memory, solidify their legitimacy and justify future augmentations to the city. I consider the question of memory and city building from an ideological angle, by investigating physical sites of memory including maps and buildings. To examine how cartography and architecture have been employed by different governments and enterprises to create memory, this study investigates their use of symbology, design, function, and technology to convey the builders’ intentions. In addition, this research employs a digital spatial medium to visualize the process of memory in Ho Chi Minh City, using critical augmented reality.

Augmented reality (AR) descries a technology that allows computer-generated contents to be superimposed on the environment around us using special interfaces such as digital glasses, phone screens, or holographic projectors. The parallels in space usage between the sites of memory studied in this project (maps and buildings) and augmented reality can provide an illuminating case study on how effective these new computer vision techniques could help historians better understand processes of history and convey their findings to the general public. The project includes a close examination of the back-end implementation of AR and a critique of the ethics and implications for using this technology, particularly in relation to memory and power.

Thuy will be online to field comments on May 8:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST 6am-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

73 thoughts on “Remembering the City: An Augmented Reality Deconstruction of Memory, Power, and Identity in Ho Chi Minh City”

  1. Inspiring work Thuy! The physical structure of cities informs the social constraints and physical health of cities. Location matters! How can this study of location and power help the city understand its structure and further the cities structural implications on health?

    1. Thank you Audrey! That is a great question. One of the colonial legacies in Ho Chi Minh City is the physical shaping of the city. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the French colonial administration had attempted to build a European city, and that was reflected by the construction of grand boulevards, buildings, and other monuments. Unfortunately, all of this superficial work masked the real problems of urban planning, since the French was also changing the water environment by dredging new canals and filling up natural ones to facilitate colonial exploitation and road building. This resulted in a lot of issues with fresh water accessibility, waste management, and other environmental disasters that have continued to plague the city today. Through my research, I hope to bring to light the hidden problems with city building and how national and regional discourses of modernization and urbanization have continued to obscure them.

      1. Thank you for the very thoughtful answer. What is next for you Thuy? Architecture or city planning perhaps?

        1. They both sound exciting but sadly neither. I’m going into software engineering for a bit before grad school in perhaps digital humanities or museum studies. I would love to work with technologies in museums.

  2. Hi Tammy! Thank you for sharing this project and congratulations on your CoRE award! Well deserved! I love the integration of AR! This is really awesome! I think of the pink church, the post office, walking street and many other fond memories of my time in Vietnam and this helps connect power, privilege and control! In Slide 9, you talk about the memory created and changed and I thought of how the brain can rewire after some time. I wonder how AR impacts this neurological rewiring, especially within our depth perception.

    1. Thank you Justin! That is a great comment on AR! It was one of my goals to exploit the spatial connection between AR and cartography/architecture. The visual and haptic cues of AR have a lot of potential for encoding memory, precisely because of its unreliability. That’s the reason why we really have to really use caution when working with it, since we are creating memory as well, just like these administrations have done.

  3. This is great work and using AR in this context fascinating. I remember Ho Chi Minh City well and your conclusions and important ones.

    1. Thank you! I hope I haven’t painted Ho Chi Minh City in a too negative light! It truly is a great place.

  4. Congratulations on an impressive Independent Study, Tammy! It was a delight to follow your process this year, and your final product reflects the extraordinary amount of work and reflection you put into your research. It’s especially cool to see your AR component come to life. I have two questions for you. First, if you had more time, what additional sites in Ho Chi Minh city would you have examined and why? Second, do you have plans to create more AR experiences either related or unrelated to your IS?

    1. Thank you Lynette! I couldn’t have finished those 130 pages without you! Thanks for sitting through those roughest drafts with me.
      If I had the space for additional sites, I would love to have included monuments by the ethnic Khmer and Cham in the city. The Chantarangsay temple by the Khmer is an example. The Cham and Khmer were vital to the history of Ho Chi Minh City (and still are) since they were the natives of the land before the Vietnamese took over this land. Their history was rich and deeply entrenched in the making of the city. However, their legacy has been obscured by efforts of assimilation and Vietnamization to an extent by different administrations throughout the years. I wish I had the space and time to highlight their contribution by including some sites of Cham and Khmer origins.
      For the second question, I definitely will create more AR contents in the future. There are no concrete plans yet, but I would love to continue working on projects that utilize technology to visualize history.
      Thank you for the great questions!

    1. Thank you Dr. Bonk! This is definitely something that can be used without having to be in Vietnam physically. It is intended more as an independent historical exhibit, centered around images and artifacts. You use your phone to scan the image or the artifacts (in this case are miniature 3D-printed models of monuments) and that will trigger the virtual contents.

  5. Congratulations, Tammy! Your work is amazing! I’m curious, what was your experience working with AR prior to this project?

    1. Thank you Mae! I had very limited experiences with AR before this. My first experience with AR was through the User Interface course. But it is a very accessible technology that doesn’t require a lot of coding background. I used the Vuforia platform in Unity and found that combination relatively easy to learn and quite powerful.

  6. Congratulations, Tammy!!! It is amazing the way you combine your interest in your IS. Thank you for working really hard and introducing your work to us!

    1. Thank you Bang! I really appreciated your help testing out the beta versions of my app! Your amazement with my work really brings me joy!

  7. So engaging and inspiring, Tammy–well done! You raise such important questions about the issues of AR in relationship to power and memory. From your research, did you find many examples of AR being used for positive social ends, or has it more often been designed to reinforce the privilege of those with the power to create AR representations?

    1. Thank you Dr. Hayward! That is a great question. AR is still in its developing phase so its uses are still limited to museums and other public history projects, but I have seen examples of both uses. One example of AR being used by states to reinforce memory is the England Originals app by the British government. It allows you to place virtual 3D maps of different English cities on your table tops and provide audio narratives for various monuments. I have also seen really successful social projects using AR. In fact, I received Copeland funding to travel to San Francisco to try out an AR-based app that tells the history of affordable housing in Fillmore, San Francisco using oral histories. That was a really inspiring experience. AR really has the potential for many different fields, but that is also the reason why we really have to pay attention to the biases or prejudices behind its design and usage.

      1. Thanks–the Fillmore housing project sounds inspiring and I hope it helps to create more affordable housing in SF again! Great insights into the need for mindful uses of AR. Congratulations again!

  8. Dear Ms. Dinh,

    Great project combining AR and history. I work as a reference librarian with Dr. Lori Walters at my home institution, University of Central Florida (UCF), who for a number of years has been using VR and AR to recreate mid-century twentieth century architecture and U.S. space history, so I know a little about this.

    1. Thank Mr. Harrison! That is great to hear! What kind of platforms do you use to create AR and VR contents?

  9. Gorgeous work! The graphics for each bit of AR are stunning and detailed in a way that really displays the full complexity of these structures. I love the emphasis you’ve placed on how central architecture is to history and how important that is to preserve. Spectacular presentation.

    1. Thank you Grace! I’m glad you enjoyed it! I had fun playing around the AR design.

  10. Tammy,
    What a wonderful project! I like the way you have demonstrated how important it is for public history to be presented in ways that further inform and ask difficult questions regarding perspective and agency. So many times I see that AR is used to simply display and not truly explore issues related to complex questions. I like the way that you chose to focus on buildings and maps, very specific ways to document the city. Did you consider any other ways to explore cultural memory? (material evidence such as artifacts, photographs, billboards/ads, oral histories, etc.?)

    I am so glad to see that you were able to present all your hard work in this format! I am so proud of you!

    1. Thank you Denise! All of your examples of materials for cultural memory are wonderful! I did consider photographs and artifacts as these are really important and powerful sites of memory, but I decided to choose maps and buildings as my focus because of the really neat spatial connection between AR and these materials. Thank you for your question!

  11. Wonderful interdisciplinary project! Great argument, I love your use and analysis of technology in historical narratives and memory.

    1. Thank you Michael! Couldn’t have done it without your help hunting down all those books!

  12. Congratulations Tammy for this remarkable work and for a clever way of combining your passions for history and computer science!

  13. This is extremely impressive Tammy, well done! And congratulations on your CORE award! It’s fascinating the way you’ve used AR to really bring to light the issues of cities being built over erased memory, and I love the way you acknowledge the caution that new technology must be treated with lest our past mistakes are repeated.

    Great job, I’m so proud of you!

  14. This is amazing. I am so proud of you. You could be on a panel at GHC this year.

    1. Haha thank you Alayt! I don’t know if I’m on par with GHC panelists’ standards yet but thanks for that!

  15. Congratulations Tammy! Your work put me in mind of last year’s summer read, The Best We Could Do, and that author’s discussion about needing to recreate the look and feel from earlier decades. How she researched and reconstructed it echoed with your concepts of layering from current to historical underlying structures. Thank you for making me think! Best wishes.

  16. Awesome job as always!!! Wish I could listen to your presentation live though. It would be so cool to interact with you live. I now finally have some historical context to think about whenever I step into Cộng. <3

    1. Thank you for supporting me with all sorts of menial tasks (including taking the photo above). Glad to have inspired people to rethink the historical context of places we are already so familiar with.

  17. Dear Tammy,
    As with all your work at the College the last 4 years, your I.S. project was truly remarkable. It is difficult to combine such disparate areas as History and Computer Science but you did so flawlessly. Your willingness to tackle a fledgling technology with all its flaws is inspiring to me and the result was pretty neat. I wish everyone could read your beautiful exposition on the fascinating journey of Ho Chi Minh city. I will miss you and wish you the very best – I am ready to write those reference letters for grad school anytime.
    Dr. Byrnes

    1. Thank you Dr. Byrnes! I really appreciated your mentoring and support during I.S. and throughout my 4 years at the College. I will miss you a lot too. It’s sad that we didn’t get to say goodbye properly!

  18. Thank you for your inspiring and creative use of augmented reality. Hope to see more of work in the future Tammy!

  19. WOW! Congrats! Sorry that I have no questions, but your IS looks really awesome!!!!

  20. Tammy!!! I loved hearing you talk about this project during our shifts together and I am so impressed with the final project!

    Congrats!

  21. What a fantastic way to visualize cultural memory! Congratulations on completing this fascinating project, and for winning the Critical Digital Engagement Award!!

  22. So proud of you, I can imagine how inspiring and how hard you have worked for this project. Though could enjoy your presentation live. Congratulations and best wishes, beloved daughter!!!

  23. Congratulations! This is a wonderful synthesis and exploration of history, memory, perception and culture. I really enjoyed it, and it expanded the ways I think about the roles of augmented reality in how we understand our past and present.

    I wish you all the best for your future!

    Pres. Bolton

    1. Thank you President Bolton. I was really happy to have a chance to showcase my work through this virtual symposium. Thank you for the opportunity!

  24. I love how you connect both of your major to conduct this exquisite study. The idea of using technology to better influence the way we view history is impressive. I’d love to watch your presentation so send me if it’s fully recorded. Congrats sis.

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