On a mission

Experience San Antonio's most treasured landmarks like never before

Experience San Antonio's most treasured landmarks like never before

San Antonio missions
San Antonio's missions were the only Texas site documented by Google's Open Heritage project. Photo courtesy of Google

If you live in San Antonio, it’s likely you have visited the five missions designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (If not, what are you waiting for?) Now, thanks to two online projects, you can experience these local treasures in a whole new way.

The first ambitious initiative is Open Heritage, a project started after founder Ben Kacyra watched TV coverage of the Taliban's destruction of ancient monuments the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. The civil engineer realized that although there was nothing he could do to stop the wars and natural disasters that threaten the world’s treasures, the technology he helped create — the first portable three-dimensional laser scanner in the world — could form a digital copy to be enjoyed for many years to come.

In 2003, Kacyra founded CyArk, a nonprofit with a mission to document the world’s most recognizable monuments. On April 16, Google announced it was partnering with the organization to bring detailed virtual tours of historically significant sites to laptops everywhere.

The online exhibition travels through 25 destinations worldwide — including San Antonio’s renowned missions. The 3-D models show remarkable levels of detail, including color and texture, that can even pinpoint damaged areas for restoration work.

The models have already proven invaluable in the case of the Elm Ya Kyaung temple in Bagan, Myamar. The structure, built in 1242, was badly damaged in a 2016 earthquake, but thanks to the data collected by the CyArk team, the breathtaking architecture was digitally preserved and can be enjoyed online.

Although a 3-D model is not available of the missions, Google Arts and Culture users can travel through the buildings via 360-degree panoramic images.

Of course, nothing can compare to visiting the real thing. And thanks to an app developed by a local company, sightseers can take away even more from a trip to San Antonio’s most famous landmark, Misión San Antonio de Valero — otherwise known as the Alamo.

Experience Real History: Alamo Edition uses augmented reality to dig deep into the history of the site. The developer, Alamo Reality, teamed up with experts to create a comprehensive overview told through multicultural perspectives.

The technology allows users to point their screens at several locations across the Alamo and see former buildings, as they once stood. Virtual hot spots open to battle scenes complete with real-time narration, giving users an immersive front seat to the action.

The app is available for free for iPhone and iPad (an Android version is coming soon), but a $4.99 upgrade allows access to premium content. Although best experienced on the Alamo grounds, users can dig deeper into the hours worth of content from anywhere in the world. 

If you want to try it out, you might want to do so quickly. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald said the app was not authorized by the Alamo nor the Texas General Land Office, and the organization is currently looking into ways to remove the app from the market.