As Enrique Sánchez-Rivera M.B.A. ’07 points out, William & Mary is a school of firsts — the first U.S. institution with a royal charter, home of the first student honor code and “Birthplace of the American College Fraternity” with the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776. With Sánchez-Rivera’s help, W&M is adding another label to that list as one of the first universities with an augmented reality mural in the heart of its campus.
Sánchez-Rivera teamed up with W&M’s Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC) to create a competition to find the right team to design such a mural on the exterior of Swem Library. He brings expertise to the project as founder of Augmented Island Studios, a Portland, Oregon-based augmented and virtual reality development studio established in 2018 that focuses on creating immersive experiences for many different types of companies. Augmented reality (AR) superimposes virtual elements onto physical objects, giving 2D murals and other art forms 3D aspects when observed through a mobile device's camera.
With the final reveal scheduled for Tuesday, April 19, the mural focuses on the conservation of local flora and fauna and is designed to allow viewers “to see nature and the world around them in a new light,” explains Sofia Geislinger ’22, one of the three students responsible for bringing the mural to life.
Geislinger, along with Katie Lee ’22 and Sarah Wicker ’23, began the process of designing this mural a year ago, when they entered the competition Sánchez-Rivera and the IIC put together. Geislinger, Lee and Wicker’s backgrounds in computer science, environmental science and studio art, respectively, made them the perfect candidates for an interdisciplinary student team to lead the project. They were supported by mentors from the Muscarelle Museum of Art, William & Mary's Art & Art History Department, W&M Libraries, the Institute for Integrative Conservation and Augmented Island Studios.
Wicker, who is head of the mural design, notes that the images to be displayed are inspired by the work of botanical photographer Craig Burrows. A specialist in ultraviolet light-induced visible fluorescence, Burrows has been featured in National Geographic magazine. He has said he hopes that those who view his photos “will feel more interested and engaged in the natural world around us,” which the W&M students have emphasized as a goal of their work as well. Through the AR component of the mural, images will transform from how humans see them to how they appear to insects under ultraviolet light.
“In this perspective,” explains Lee, the community engagement leader, “we can have a better appreciation for all that nature’s doing and how we’re just one part of it.”
Another motif the students have highlighted in their design of the mural is decolonization.
“We are kind of rigid in our perspectives of nature, the idea that we take, take, take — how can we decolonize that and reconsider our relationship to nature?” Wicker says. To promote that concept, she designed a pair of hands that are offering a flower to a hummingbird — giving, rather than taking.
Wicker also took care to design the hands to be those of a person of color, in tribute to the those who have historically worked with the land and to acknowledge the history of enslavement across America and within William & Mary.
“We hope that this piece can lead to further discussions about enslavement both at the university and within the histories of how we interact with nature,” she says.
Sánchez-Rivera, who was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, explains that this mural came to fruition for two reasons: “I have always wanted to merge my work with doing good for society and educating others about our planet.” This desire, combined with his loyalty to and love for W&M’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, is what inspired him to work with W&M students. “I love mentoring students,” he says. “I got a lot of value from the mentors that I had when I was in grad school at William & Mary, and so I wanted to give that opportunity back to students.”
Sánchez-Rivera has been involved with many other projects that incorporate activism into AR. Most notably, he has worked on a mural in Columbus, Ohio, featuring an immigrant holding a Victorian house in her hands, symbolizing an open city. He has also worked with Conservation International on a project that used augmented reality to raise awareness about invasive species in Hawaii.
Sánchez-Rivera attended W&M’s business school in 2007 after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1999 and gaining experience in the corporate world, and he appreciates how working prior to attending business school enhanced his learning experience.
“I was able to apply problems and thoughts from my previous life to the program in a way that was very unique,” he explains. He also notes that genuinely caring and invested professors is what made W&M the best fit for him. “Without ethics, you’re nobody,” Sánchez-Rivera says. “And in a world plagued with characters who trample on human beings, I really thought that the focus W&M professors gave to being an ethical person was very important.”
An active William & Mary alumnus, Sánchez-Rivera co-founded the business school’s Alumni of Color Network and serves as its vice president of programming and engagement. He also participated in the IIC virtual discussion “Augmented Reality Application to Conservation” with Matthew Ramsey, director of the Conservation International Hawai'i Program, about how they are using augmented reality to revolutionize the conservation of Hawai'i’s marine ecosystem and the sociocultural benefits it provides local people.
While Sánchez-Rivera is giving back to his alma mater through the mural project and involvement with other programs, Geislinger, Lee and Wicker are leaving a legacy for future students.
“We’re going to be gone in a year,” Geislinger says, “but what’s not going to be gone is the mural, and it’s really cool that so many people are going to have experiences with it, so many people are going to walk past it and see it and to know what we were a part of it, that we left our mark on the campus, is really cool.”
Sánchez-Rivera and the Augmented Island Studios team will be joining Geislinger, Lee and Wicker from Oregon and Colombia at the mural’s unveiling on Tuesday, April 19, from 4-6 p.m. The mural is painted on an exterior wall of Swem Library, just outside the Omohundro Institute, and the event will include food, music and other conservation-related activities.
This project was sponsored by the Institute for Integrative Conservation, W&M Libraries, Augmented Island Studios, the Muscarelle Museum of Art and W&M Sustainability, with support from the Art & Art History Department, W&M Facilities, W&M Public Safety Department and the W&M Design Review Board. In addition to Sánchez-Rivera, Augmented Island Studios' team for the project includes Guillermo Alvarez (chief technology officer), Mauricio Fernandez (art director) and Maria Jose Valencia (chief operating officer). William & Mary's team includes Steve Prince, Lisa Nickel, Tami Back, Joanna Good, Nikki Santiago and other volunteers.