By LISA ANNITTI
For Montclair Local

Like any art, poetry, at its best, can seem to come alive in front of its audience. Montclair resident Niraj Shah’s augmented reality app for iPhones and Android devices takes that a step further.

“I wanted the reader to get the sense that they were a part of the art — the reason being, to create a stronger connection between the audience, the art, and me,” Shah, creator of AR Poetry & Art, said. “Maybe I just needed to feel that connection.”

In augmented reality, virtual elements or information are overlaid on images or video of the real world, in real time. The hit game Pokemon Go for mobile phones is among the most famous examples of the idea.

In Shah’s app, a user clicks on a poem’s title. The AR experience begins with the poem and animations enhancing video of the world around the viewer. 

It took Shah about a year to create the first version of the app. He began in 2017 with the poems, before eventually expanding it to include more features.

“Since then, I've been working on and off on it, changing the [user experience] and content. “But the big changes were adding the AR Art, AR Self Care, and [multi-user] AR Words sections in the app.

A user of the current version of the app, looking at the virtual-real-hybrid world, will see wall art and clothes with Shah’s own artwork, available for purchase at nirajshah.me. Through the AR Self Care function of the app, the user is guided through breathing exercises. And the AR Word Creation function lets a user place words or phrases anywhere, alone or while participating with friends, to create their own poetry and art. 

And perhaps the simplest function of the app — a user can also just browse Shah’s poems to read them conventionally. 

A user of AR Poetry & Art tries out the AR Words function of the app — letting participants in a group conversation each layer words over real-life scenes to collectively create art while communicating. (COURTESY NIRAJ SHAH)
A user of AR Poetry & Art tries out the AR Words function of the app — letting participants in a group conversation each layer words over real-life scenes to collectively create art while communicating. (COURTESY NIRAJ SHAH)
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At first, Shah said, he didn’t know how to get the sort of engagement he was craving. He started creating animated poem videos. He liked what he made, but wanted more creativity. 

Then, one day, while he was out at a bar with friends, one took out his phone to play Pokemon Go.

“Through his screen, I saw a Pokemon on top of the table at the bar. I was blown away and immediately I had the idea to marry AR with my art,” Shah said. “I said to myself, ‘This is what I was waiting for, the interactivity I was looking for with my poetry.’”

Augmented reality had already been around, he said, but the technology was catching up to the point where it could be accessible — where it could be in anyone’s hands. 

“I needed to learn this technology, so I took some online courses, and a year later I published the first version of the app,” Shah said.

With the AR Words function, a user types or speaks, and the word or phrase appears a few feet in front of the user. The user can walk around the words, and tweak the color, the rotation or the size. When the user likes how those words appear, he or she can move on and create more.

“But the fun doesn't end there,” Shah said.  “This section is like a multiplayer game, where you create a virtual room and have your friends join that room. Think of it as a group chat, but you’ll be seeing each other's messages in AR, with the rotation, size, and color your friend applied.”

Each user’s contributions have his or her name on top, so friends can keep track of who’s saying what in the AR experience. It’s a hybrid between messaging and group art.

“If you're not feeling creative and just want to message your friends who are in the same virtual room in AR, you can do that as well,” Shah said.

He said he put the breathing exercises in his app to make things fun, and to think out of the box. 

“I believe one of the reasons art is important is because it can be therapeutic,” Shah said. “It can make you calm, happy and less stressed. Self-care is similar and this is the connection between the two. I want my art to resonate with you and help you to find happiness and connection to your true self. On the other hand, breathing exercises can be done anywhere, and that's why there are two [for now] breathing exercises in AR.”    

Shah doesn’t have degrees in English or computer science — his academic training is in business, and his LinkedIn page describes him primarily as a business and data analyst. But he started writing poetry in middle school, and it took off from there. 

His poetry usually focuses on loneliness, self-doubt, inquiry, hope and social commentary. But sometimes, he writes just for entertainment.

“The reason I write poetry is that it helps me connect to myself,” Shah said. “It's a reflection of my being, and an outlet for me, of me.” 

His art aligns and connects him with his true self by helping him be more conscious about his inner emotional life, which makes him more compassionate toward himself, others and the planet, he said. Shah loves to play with words, sentence structures, alliterations and puns.

The AR Poetry & Art costs $9.99 in either the Apple or Google app stores. It’s updated regularly with new content.

“What this app means to me is that I'm on the right path to my dreams, but I won't get there until this app, my creativity, makes a positive impact on people's lives,” Shah said.