Tim Huang Is Helping Residents of the Hill District Revisit Their Past with “The Time-Traveling Project”

October 2, 2023

Tim Huang, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship, has been working on an exciting new project that will help senior residents in the Hill District revisit their shared past. The project uses photos taken by Teenie Harris, a famed photographer known for his vibrant portraits of life in Pittsburgh’s African American communities during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Called “The Time-Traveling Project,” it transforms two-dimensional photographs into videos that, using virtual reality (VR) technology, immerse the beholder into the environments depicted in the images. The viewer simply puts on a VR headset, allowing the formerly two-dimensional space to envelop the visual field of the wearer while they have the helmet equipped. In addition to the immersive VR experience, Huang also aims to expand accessibility by making 'The Time-Traveling Project' available on web and mobile platforms, eliminating the need for specialized VR headsets.

The project does more than just recreate the environments depicted in the photographs. The memories of those who frequented those spaces have been incorporated as voiceover narrations. To accomplish this aspect of the project, Huang said that he would present residents with some images taken from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Teenie Harris Archive and ask them to detail some of the memories triggered by the photograph.

Huang said, “We want to make sure these stories will be a part of these images and that the project can serve as a kind of time capsule for future generations. It will also be available in the future for educational purposes, as materials for younger generations in local communities. We want to create a model for big collaboration between communities, local museums, and universities.”

Huang said that the project began in collaboration with Macedonia Family and Community Engagement Center, Inc., a faith-based non-profit organization focused on community outreach in Pittsburgh that works primarily within the Hill District community. 

Huang started by showing historical photographs of Pittsburgh to residents of the Hill District and asking them about additional images that they would like to see transformed into three-dimensional videos. “I started to collect old photos of Pittsburgh, based on their requests because they wanted something like a time-travel experience,” Huang said. “I began to collect some old pictures, and then at some point, they also invited the in-house archivist for the Teenie Harris Archive, Charlene Foggie-Barnett. So, we started to collaborate and talk about how we can transform the archived images into 360° videos.”

When Huang was planning the project, he said that he had examined earlier exhibitions of Harris’ photography. He said he had seen a kiosk that “consisted of small, individual pictures.” While Huang was impressed by the exhibition, he saw an opportunity to expand this mode of presentation beyond “accessing the image layer” through incorporating the recounted memories of those who were present. He added, “I want to bring this experience to an online space, as well as to people who have physical constraints, or those who won’t be able to attend the exhibition due to financial constraints.” 

While Huang and others are still working out the exact details of how it will be exhibited, “The Time Traveling Project” will be viewable during Homecoming Week. The first Homecoming Week event hosted by the School of Computing and Information (SCI) will take place on October 13. You can explore the schedule for SCI-hosted Homecoming Week events here.


--Daniel Beresheim