Explore Vancouver’s Neon Past with new “augmented reality” app

Photo credit: Ken Oakes, Vancouver Sun, 1960

During the 1950s and 1960s, Vancouver was home to some 19,000 neon signs.  At night, the Chinatown and Granville Street neighbourhoods glowed with garish turquoise, pink and red marquees, advertising everything from cabarets to drug stores and even funeral homes.

By-laws enacted in the 1970s resulted in a crackdown on the city’s neon signage.  But it’s now possible to relive Vancouver’s neon heyday with a new app from the Museum of Vancouver.

The Visible City app, available for iPhone and Android on April 30, takes users on interactive walking tours of bygone neon landmarks in Chinatown and along Granville Street.  Thanks to new augmented reality technology, when you hold your camera up to current-day scenes, the app shows how the same location looked in all its former neon glory.

The app was developed by the Museum of Vancouver, which says it is the first cultural institution in North America to make use of augmented reality.  It’s accompanied by an online exhibition, as well as the extremely popular Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver exhibit, a permanent installation of 22 salvaged signs that debuted in the museum in 2011.

Vancouverites weren’t always so nostalgic about their neon, however.

During the height of the neon era in the mid-1960s, the Vancouver Sun complained of a “hideous jungle of signs . . . outsized, outlandish and outrageous.”  The Province claimed the illuminated signs were “a flame for the moth-swarm of tourists, toughs and tarts.” Opponents led a “visual purity crusade,” which ultimately led to laws curtailing the use of neon on city streets.

More recently, LED technology has dealt a near fatal blow to neon signage.  In fact, many consider neon – which requires skilled craftspeople to design and bend glass tubes by hand – to be a dying art.

Nonetheless, stunning contemporary examples remain, from the money-saving pink pig above Save-on-Meats on Hastings Street to the stately trio of Commodore Ballroom, Orpheum Theatre and Vogue Theatre signs on Granville Street.

The Museum of Vancouver’s Visible City app will be available for download on April 30.  A launch party and inaugural walking tour will be held on April 30 at 4 p.m. at the Vancouver FanClub.

What’s your pick for Vancouver’s best neon sign? Let us know below. 

Want more updates on Vancouver and beyond? Follow me on Twitter @RemyScalza.  

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