What if instead of simply reading about the tree of life, you could walk the strait and narrow path? Look toward the great and spacious building from the perspective of those holding to the Rod of Iron? Stand with Lehi and modern-day youth at the tree of life?
And what if you could carry that experience around in your pocket?
With a ground-breaking new app just released by the Church, in a way, you can.
The new Tree of Life AR app uses augmented reality (AR) technology and 3D footage and images from the new Book of Mormon videos to bring to life a well-known story from 1 Nephi 8. Just look for the Tree of Life AR app on the Apple app store or the Google Play store.
Defining a Gospel Vision
The Tree of Life AR app lets users pick their viewing surface (a table or the floor) and then engage in a self-guided study of the tree of life vision. As you click on different parts of the scene, questions to ponder developed by members of the seminaries and institutes and the priesthood and family departments appear along with related scripture verses and videos. All content in the app has audio capabilities, meaning that no matter your age or literacy levels, you can still use and learn about the gospel from the Tree of Life AR experience—an important feature for many members with little access to education.
But the team behind the project didn’t start with such a defined vision. The groundwork for the app was being laid as early as two years ago, as the Book of Mormon videos were just beginning the filming process.
Justin Lether, the lead sponsor for the new Tree of Life AR app and a member of the Book of Mormon videos team, says that it was a series of miracles that lead to this new way of bringing the scriptures to life. Lether explains that at just the right time, the idea came to capture 360° video and images while filming the Book of Mormon videos.
Though unsure of what they would do with the extra “immersive media” content initially, an idea first emerged for a simple app that incorporated many of the scenes, allowing users to look around Lehi’s tent while reading about it or look at the brass plates in 3D. But after receiving audience feedback, they decided to narrow their perspective to dive into one familiar story. Former Disney employees Kristin Yee and Bryan Lefler, the Tree of Life AR app’s lead manager and designer respectively, explain that the team ultimately decided to focus on the tree of life story because of its rich symbolism and opportunities for learning. They then went to work sketching out some ideas.
“In a seminary classroom, you could put it on a desk. In a home, you could put it on a coffee table or on the floor in the living room. Or in the center of your classroom in church on Sunday,” Lether says about the potential uses for the app.
“The open-ended exploratory nature of the experience allows audiences to focus on what they want or feel to learn, similar to the pattern in Come, Follow Me. The hope is that this type of learning helps audiences relate the vision and teachings to their own lives,” explain Yee and Lefler.
The team behind the Tree of Life AR app hopes that augmented and virtual reality will provide yet one more avenue for people to learn about the gospel and draw closer to Christ by connecting with the scriptures.
“I remember as a kid how important [visual mediums] were in shaping my understanding of the events of the scriptures,” Michael Murdock, the lead developer for the app, shares. “AR not only gives context but allows the viewer to be a participant in the experience. The ability to explore the world means that you can focus on the parts that are important to you, and in the end, hopefully people will have a greater understanding of the stories.”
Tree of Life AR App demo from Michael Murdock on Vimeo.
Connecting Children and Young Adults with the Scriptures
While anyone can use the Tree of Life AR app, its unique and relevant technology is geared particularly to engage children, youth, and young adults with the scriptures in a way that they are familiar with and to bring them closer to Christ. Murdock explains, “This experience can really be unique for each person. Children tend to enjoy just walking around, exploring the people and other elements from unique angles. There are also a lot of scriptures, videos, and questions that aren't linear but that can help teens and adults reflect on the meaning of the story in their own lives.”
The team was pleased to learn that children who helped test the app spent an average of 16 minutes minimum and up to 60 minutes engaging with the tree of life world, suggesting that the story, app, and technology it uses is relevant and interesting to even very young minds.
In fact, at a recent family home evening in their home, Lether’s children used the Tree of Life AR app to walk their grandparents through the scripture story. “I have these really sweet pictures of my 5-year-old and my 7-year-old with my mom and dad in their 70s talking about the tree of life, and my 7-year-old is running the conversation. It’s pretty unique,” he says.
Images courtesy of Justin Lether
An Immersive Scripture Experience
With platforms like Apple, Google, and Facebook continuing to develop VR and AR capabilities, it only makes sense that Church leaders are keeping their eyes on these new technologies for opportunities to provide additional gospel learning experiences for all the members of the Church. “The Brethren really are interested in making sure that we’re sharing the gospel and engaging with the youth at their level and in the platforms that they’re using,” Lether says.
“Personally, I love the ability to explore the vision in a way that could not be done through any other medium,” Murdock says. “All around the world people will be able to virtually walk through the pillars of the great and spacious building, to walk underneath the tree of life, and through the mists of darkness along the rod of iron.”
The use of AR isn’t the only way gospel study has been enhanced recently. For example, gospel art as well as bible and Book of Mormon videos were recently added into the footnotes of the scriptures on the Gospel Library app. But the Tree of Life AR app creators do hope that this unique technology will open a variety of new opportunities for gospel learning.
“It’s a first-ever for the Church,” Lether says. “It’s the first time we’ve released an app with augmented reality and virtual reality in it. Scripture-based, self-directed learning. So it really is a prototype—it’s a learning tool for us right now. The result of that is that a committee is being formed at the Church to look at how augmented reality and virtual reality can be used to bring members to Christ.” The committee will explore future ideas for using AR and VR technology ranging from capturing a Church history site tour in VR to preserving a temple open house or documenting family history memories.
“There may be a bit of novelty affect,” Lether admits, “but on our end, we’re excited to learn what parts of it engage and what doesn’t. For example, do we capture more when we film the coming of Jesus Christ to the Americas while filming Book of Mormon videos this year? Do we create a virtual or augmented reality experience of being at the feet of Jesus Christ? That’s why we’re doing it, is to learn what else should we capture and what possibilities there are in the future to bring people closer to Jesus Christ.”
Murdock adds, “There are so many iconic moments that people envision through cartoons, paintings, etc. I think it would be great to help people envision those stories through AR as well, to broaden the visualization of familiar stories. Stories like Samuel the Lamanite, The Brother of Jared, Moses, Noah, Joseph Smith, the pioneers. It's hard to think of iconic stories that wouldn't be fun to explore.”
This app has a lot of potential to make the scriptures more real and open more gospel conversations among members and investigators alike.
As Yee and Lefler put it, “The goal was to create a communal experience where families or friends could learn together in a new way. The vision impacts people in different ways, and sharing the experience opens up opportunities to hear and share new perspectives with one another.” Check it out and see how your perspective of the vision of the tree of life changes.
Tips and things to know:
- The app is currently available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
- The app is designed for users to move and explore, so even though we are used to experiencing media on our phones, to really learn the most from this app, you should stand up and walk around.
- The app is not compatible with iPad Mini 4 and iPad Air 2. The app is best used with iOS 13 (operating system) and newer iPhones, as older devices are not supported by Apple AR. If you are using Android, check your device to see if it supports augmented reality technology.
- The Church hopes to learn how to best use AR and VR for gospel learning in the future based on how members learn from and use the Tree of Life AR app, so if you like the app, use it and share about your experience!
- While this pilot app will be helpful to use with the upcoming Come, Follow Me study on the tree of life, there may still be bugs, so don’t forget to contribute your experiences and feedback.