Avery Chenoweth '74: A Long-Time Storyteller Wades into the World of Technology

“It’s an app that’s really a cross between Pokemon Go and a history mystery,” said Mr. Chenoweth of his product, which was tested with schoolchildren in the Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia last fall.
Avery Chenoweth ’74, grew up down the street from The Hun School, but spent summers in Beersheba Springs, Tennessee. At his grandparents’ antebellum house, relatives would sit on the porch telling stories to pass hot summer nights.

So it was a natural progression when Mr. Chenoweth became a writer. He wrote for national newspapers and magazines, and authored four books – two historical, one of poems and stories, and one novel. But in 2014, while visiting historical sites near his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, he got an idea for telling stories in a new way. And Here’s My Story was born.

“It’s an app that’s really a cross between Pokemon Go and a history mystery,” said Mr. Chenoweth of his product, which was tested with schoolchildren in the Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia last fall.

The app leads the user on the path of characters, such as a 16-year-old runaway slave, who impart history through their stories.

“It’s an attempt to bring historical figures’ struggles to life, and gamifying it is another step in engaging the viewer,” said Mr. Chenoweth. “Rather than passively watching it, you’re playing a game with them.”

The app uses technologies like virtual and augmented reality, which can project a figure, such as the 16-year-old slave, from a handheld device onto the real world in front of the viewer. While teaching, the game gets viewers out of their cars or buses, and into the park. (Student users were given pedometers to measure how much they walked.) And it often suggests that viewers “turn off the game and observe your surroundings.” Follow-up testing showed that students retained 90 percent of what they had heard.

Mr. Chenoweth and a business partner developed the company from the ground up, with the help of the University of Virginia business incubator i.Lab. He now has fifteen people working on the project across the country. In addition to Harper’s Ferry, eight other national parks are interested in the app, which they hope may be a way to boost visitor numbers. A mid-Atlantic state is also considering using the app at its state historic sites.

“Most startups are usually a new spin on a conventional idea; I’m telling people about a world that doesn’t exist yet,” said Mr. Chenoweth. “No one has gone into a national park and done this type of experiential learning. The good news is that everyone we talk to gets it.”

Mr. Chenoweth believes, in part, that his love of learning began for him at The Hun School.

“I loved the faculty at Hun, especially (History Department Chair) George Warren,” he said. “Teachers at Hun spent a lot of time in exploratory conversations, they were young, just out of college, and their way of talking inspired us.”

Living down the street from the School, Mr. Chenoweth befriended many of the boarding students. “They were from Chicago, Iran, Venezuela; it was very European and very cosmopolitan,” he recalled. “The atmosphere was tweedy, like something from a book, with freshman ties and a lot of antique, old prep school stuff.”

After majoring in English at Vassar College, Mr. Chenoweth got a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins University. He spent years teaching and writing, but stopped in 2013 after he had a heart attack, and it became too “mentally exhausting.” As he did odd jobs, such as picking up rental cars around the history-filled areas of Virginia, the idea for the app grew.

“It’s very exciting; we’ve got the mission and vision,” he said of his growing company. “People will be engaging in history in a whole new way.”
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    • Avery Chenoweth '74 is the founder of "Here's My Story," an app that brings the struggles of historical figures to life.

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