New York's historic murders come to life in "Gruesome Gotham"

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Firstborn's augmented reality app is bloody fun on the streets of Victorian Era Manhattan.

On November 9, 1895, a stranger stabbed Greenwich Village gentleman Michael Healy to death with an umbrella placed precisely through his eye socket. The murder was never solved, and the street corner where Healy bled to death—Bleecker and Grove—is now home to tony boutiques whose shoppers are unaware of their surroundings’ grisly past.

But not for long: a new AR app from Tribeca digital agency Firstborn brings the bloody business back to Village streets, just in time for Halloween. "Gruesome Gotham," developed with Apple’s ARKit, gives users a chance to witness six Victorian-era New York City murders in the very spots where they occurred. 

"Your phone becomes a portal to a different time—you can walk up to the murder and almost interact with it," said Firstborn creative director Ulrika Karlberg, who led the Gruesome team. "But it’s not just an environment in your phone. You’re actually where this took place."

Firstborn was eager to try out ARkit, and after the success of the its Christmas VR experiment last year, the agency decided on another seasonal activation to try the program for the first time. "We wanted to do something that felt New York and felt right for us, and also uses AR in a way that elevates an experience instead of using it for the sake of tech," said Karlberg. 

Her team researched the ample options for stories ("A lot of people have been murdered in New York," she pointed out) and selected within two parameters: the historical period, which exploits AR’s capacity for actually augmenting a location with complex layers, rather than simply being a cool overlay that could work anywhere; and the vivid details, which provide rich visuals that create a more immersive, interactive experience. "We chose interesting murders that had happened near our office and would look spectacular in AR."

In addition to Healy’s perishing by parasol, viewers meet Dominico Caldato, victim of a slashed neck; Bartholomew Burke, dispatched by a mystery murderer using Burke’s own garden shears and hammer; notorious gangster Bill Poole, a victim of his own bar brawling; and two more fatalities who suffered equally salacious ends. Between the AR visuals themselves and the expanded stories that accompany each, the app seeks to enrich users’ understanding of the city, whether they’re locals or transplants. 

While the graphic violence of the app might be over the top for many client activations, Karlberg stressed that this experiment provided crucial experience for Firstborn’s creatives with software they expect to use often going forward. "You can take more liberties with things that don’t have financial goals attached to them, and those become good trial and error for client executions, especially with emerging tech." 

And especially, she added, with something like AR, which brands shouldn’t make the mistake of considering gimmicky—it’s "the same as any other new tech, like VR or TV," she said. With smartphone brands including AR in recent software updates and both Apple and Google’s tech available to consumers, this tech is already well on its way to being a standard element of brand campaigns.

"Any brand that wants to feel innovative should experiment with AR," she said. "It has potential to create a rich world for your brand, to create a portal to bring consumers into your brand’s world." Perhaps a less gory world, but a vital one nonetheless.