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Research + Innovation

History and Augmented Reality Meet to Uplift a Black Icon from North Carolina

Professor Derek Ham demonstrates how augmented reality can highlight the history of Negro League Baseball and the impact of players like Buck Leonard.
Professor Derek Ham demonstrates how augmented reality can highlight the history of Negro League Baseball and the impact of players like Buck Leonard.

Students and faculty are bringing new life and awareness to icons like Negro League Baseball player Buck Leonard, using AR to enhance typical displays into interactive, mini-museums. 

Working with a grant from the NC State Foundation focused on “Mixed Reality for Social Impact,” Derek Ham, department head of Art + Design at NC State’s College of Design, is helping to tell the stories of underrepresented communities in the medium he knows best – Augmented Reality (AR). 

College of Design students Mustafa Ozcicek (PhD in Design), Elyse Hill and Niyana Haney (undergraduates in Art + Design) put together three mobile banners and the accompanying AR elements to tell the story of Negro League 1st baseman Buck Leonard.  

Mobile banners each have a unique QR code which allow viewers to interact with historically significant people and events within the world of Negro League Baseball.
Mobile banners each have a unique QR code which allow viewers to interact with historically significant people and events within the world of Negro League Baseball.

Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard is largely considered the greatest Negro Leagues 1st baseman of all-time. From 1934 to 1950, he captained the great Homestead Grays of the Negro National League to 10 league championships and 3 Negro Leagues World Series titles. He played in a record 12 All-Star games, earning a reputation as one of the game’s most feared hitters and greatest all-around stars. Though he never played in the Major Leagues, he has been considered one of the top 50 baseball players of all-time and was among the first 3 Negro Leaguers elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

A native of Rocky Mount, NC, Leonard was arrested as a kid for simply looking through a fence. Ham knew this was an important AR element, and this display allows you to see through the fence, much the way Leonard would have. “Traditionally, you’re just seeing this – history, text, words – and now, we can use AR in a meaningful way to tell the deeper part of a story” he says.

Tad Richardson, the marketing and community development director for the Buck Leonard association of volunteers, wanted to get Leonard’s story out there in a meaningful way. He drew inspiration from the Josh Gibson Foundation, which takes the opportunity to go to ballparks and share mobile displays about the history of the players.

“Receiving this grant, I knew this was an opportunity to work with communities to tell stories. Not only that, but it was an opportunity to give my students the chance to work with a real-world client and learn history while putting this content together,” Ham says.

The stars aligned, with the project scheduled to wrap up a few weeks before the nation celebrated Juneteenth, a national holiday commemorating emancipation and the end of slavery in the United States. In honor of Juneteenth, the displays were showcased at the Durham Bulls game on June 19, 2022.

“We are seeing this as an opportunity to partner with minor league baseball teams and take this all over the state” adds Richardson. Earlier this year, Minor League Baseball announced the launch of “The Nine,” a new initiative designed to celebrate the history of Black and African American trailblazers in baseball, and revive baseball in inner cities.

Richardson feels that these displays are taking it one step further, incorporating both the history of key players as well as telling these key stories in communities throughout the state, merging the old with the new to bring storytelling to a new level.

Experience the AR on a Mobile Device

Click these links on your phone to see the AR elements from each poster:

Tad Richardson and Derek Ham
Tad Richardson, marketing and community development director for the Buck Leonard association of volunteers and Derek Ham, department head of Art + Design at the College of Design.

About the Buck Leonard Association

The Buck Leonard Association for Sports and Human Enrichment engages and empowers its neighbors with programming and resources that promote the education, health and well-being of the children and the community.

With an extensive background in Early Childhood Development and Head Start, they engage children of low-income families in programs that promote active learning, personal enrichment, athletics and community pride; while empowering parents and caretakers with access to the services and resources they need to help create positive outcomes for their families.