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App turns your iPhone into a time machine

WhatWasThere gives you a now-and-then experience. The combination of old photos and Google Maps lets you dial back the years on the scene in front of you.

old photo of a city street scene
Your phone can become a window in time. Enlighten Ventures

Walk down certain city streets and you can practically feel the ghosts around you. Who was walking here 100 years earlier? Which buildings survived from earlier centuries? Wasn't there a famous fire around here? An iPhone app aims to help you spot the ghosts, or at least inform your imagination. WhatWasThere lets anyone upload and view old photographs that are tied to a location via Google Maps.

The free app, and accompanying Web site for the deskbound, is a crowdsourcing platform for assembling a visual historic record of the world's streetscapes. People can upload photos and tag them with location and year.

Places with associated photos are marked on a Google Map. Click on a mark and a list of available photos pops up with thumbnail, label, year, and distance from your location. Click a list item and the photo comes up. Put the photo in full-screen mode, aim your phone's camera in the direction of the scene in the photo, and you can drag a slider bar between camera view and photo to get a now-and-then perspective.

WhatWasThere's developer, Enlighten Ventures, plans to release keyword-search capability based on title, description, and user tags, and the ability for users to make photo albums. Picture tags and so on like "Old Theaters of New York" or "Gettysburg Battlefields." Enlighten is also working on a way for users to tag any photo in the system, not just the ones they upload.

screenshots of old-photos app
Drill down from a map to specific photos. Enlighten Ventures

I love the concept, and I hope a lot of historical societies and libraries upload their collections. I can also imagine an augmented-reality gaming angle. Maybe someone could develop a treasure-hunt-style puzzle using details from old photos, or an ultracold-case detective game with clues embedded in the pictures. What do you think?