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A Hidden Figures augmented reality app puts invisible scientific geniuses all over America

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The film Hidden Figures, released late last year, follows three under-recognized female mathematicians who helped NASA launch humanity into space in the 1960s. So in order to promote it, IBM and The New York Times Company are putting literally hidden figures all around the US, waiting to be discovered with your phone. Outthink Hidden, as the project is called, is an augmented reality app that’s supposed to help people learn about marginalized doctors, engineers, and scientists. It launched at CES, and we got to check it out.

Once people download the app on iOS or Android, they can visit any of 150 sites in 10 cities and point their camera at a QR code. Through it, they’ll see a statue representing Hidden Figure protagonist Katherine Johnson or one of nine other people, including Johnson’s colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, inventor Bessie Blount Griffin, and blind mathematician Abraham Nemeth. The app includes a map of locations, as well as biographies of the featured men and women.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

Outthink Hidden could have been executed a bit better. At a QR-marked pedestal on the CES show floor, it was difficult to keep the code in view while moving my phone to look at the statue. When I panned up to Katherine Johnson’s face — seen below — I had to stay at just the right angle or she’d vanish. And the app is actually called “T Brand Studio AR” after The New York Times Company’s branding agency, an unintuitive name that makes it harder to find and download.

But the app is conceptually clever, especially for a simple, early project. And it’s a good chance to check in on the current state of diversity in tech, which is still far from stellar. In 2014, data from seven American tech giants (not including IBM) showed only 7 percent of employees were black and 8 percent were Hispanic on average, compared to roughly 12 percent and 16 percent of the total population. An average of 29 percent were female, and all these numbers dropped sharply among tech leadership. IBM didn’t have recent workplace diversity statistics offhand, but its website says women make up 29 percent of the total workforce, and we’ve asked for more numbers.

IBM branded content head manager Jacelyn Swenson says the Outthink Hidden app will stay up indefinitely, but the invisible statues will disappear for good at the end of March. Swenson won’t say what comes after that, but she suggests that similar projects could be in the works. “I expect we’ll have many more initiatives like this,” she says.