Y&R created an app that uses AR to close the gender gap--among statues

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The Whole Story project lets users place virtual tributes to women, who constitute just 8 percent of statues in the US.

Only 8 percent of public statues in the U.S. depict women, and most of those are fictional or mythological figures, like the Statue of Liberty. Just three of the 29 statues in Central Park in Manhattan are women, none of them real: Mother Goose, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Shakespeare’s Juliet.

But a new mobile app from Y&R New York and Current Studios is helping the public rectify that, sort of. The Whole Story Project lets users create virtual statues of influential women and place them in historic locations for others to view in augmented reality. So far, more than 30 statues have been placed in the U.S. and Europe, depicting real-life luminaries like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, "Raisin in the Sun" playwright Lorraine Hansberry and 18th Century French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet.

"To us, statuary presented an opportunity to close the gender gap in a very real, very visual way," said Leslie Sims, chief creative officer of Y&R North America. "It also gave us the unique opportunity to honor the remarkable women who came before us in a way that can inspire generations of women to come."

To that end, Y&R has been working with Girl Scout Troop 3484, who have placed virtual statues of women like Amelia Earhart, Nina Simone and Shirley Chisholm in Central Park. The troop is part of an ongoing effort to raise $1.5 million to create and place real statues of suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the park by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. Stanton’s great-great granddaughter Coline Jenkins also placed a virtual statue of her ancestor at 77th street and Central Park West, the proposed site for Stanton’s monument.

"Psychologist Lynette Long has said that ‘the nonverbal sends a stronger message than the verbal.’ And ‘if you can't see it, you can't be it,’" Sims added. "So we wanted to show girls everywhere that they can ‘be it.’"

For now, users of the new app must use separate 3-D modeling software to create a virtual statue on their own, then upload it to the Whole Story Project website before using the app to place it in an augmented reality location. But the agency, which is part of WPP, hopes that won’t be the case for long. "We plan to develop a collaborative program that pairs designers with developers and is curated by cultural organizations," Sims said. It’s scheduled to debut this autumn.

In the meantime, designers with the requisite skills have plenty of leeway in their designs. While there’s a file size limitation for virtual statues, there’s no size limit. The statues that have been placed so far are of near-human proportions—6 to 10 feet tall, plus pedestal. But there’s nothing stopping an enterprising designer from creating a twin for the Statue of Liberty, maybe a woman with an actual name.

Users can read information about the women each statue depicts in the app, which also maps the location of every statue worldwide. To view the virtual statues, users must physically be in the right location, just like viewing a real statue. When GPS determines they’re within about 25 feet of a virtual statue, it appears on-screen when the camera is pointed at the location.

And more virtual statues are forthcoming. In mid-May, Y&R is hosting an invitational hack-a-thon for statue designers with Code Liberation, an organization that teaches computer programming to women and girls. Y&R offices globally will be placing statues in their own cities, as well as hosting their own hack-a-thons. And the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites will add virtual statues of important women in the suffrage movement, as part of the Votes for Women National Trail project.

Other ad agencies have also been working to increase the visibility of women in the public square. BBDO’s "Put Her on the Map" project is coordinating with the City of Los Angeles to rename streets in honor of women, and McCann New York’s "Fearless Girl" focused the effort into a single piece of bronze. While none of these projects were created in collaboration, Sims said she welcomes the shift in the zeitgeist. "We recognize with a certain level of excitement that several individuals and companies are working on initiatives to create greater female representation."