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Virtual Reality Is Bringing These Lost Worlds Back to Life

Archaeologists are experimenting with virtual reality and augmented reality to recreate ancient and historic sites and digitally preserve great ruins before they're lost.
Image: Virtual Reality
A virtual reconstruction of a Bronze Age round house.Computer-generated image by Soluis Heritage

Stuart Eve thinks that to really understand what it was like to live in the past, you have to see it for yourself. And you have to hear it and smell it, too.

Eve is an archaeologist working on something like a low-budget time machine. A few years ago, he made a prototype for an augmented reality app called Dead Men’s Eyes, which he fashioned to get a close look at prehistoric life in Leskernick Hill, a tin-mining village in southeastern England.

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As he walked the site, Eve could look through the camera feed of his iPad and see virtual Bronze Age houses that were invisible in the modern landscape. Depending on his GPS location, the app would play different 3D audio (a crackling fire, muffled voices) in his headphones and trigger different smells (animal manure, smoke) to be emitted from a device hanging around his neck.

Now, Eve wants to create the same type of immersive experience for Waterloo Uncovered, a new archaeological project at the site of the bloody 1815 battle that marked Napoleon’s defeat.

“If you suddenly get the smell of blood and death, that stops you in your tracks immediately, probably more so then seeing images of the bodies themselves,” Eve says. “It’s a bit more of a subtle approach. Smells are quite evocative and make your brain work in a slightly different way.”

A New Direction for Archaeology

To be a good archaeologist you need an active imagination. You need to see a roaring hearth where there’s just a faint circle of ash in the dirt. You have to picture an ancient kitchen amid a scatter of broken pots and butchered animal bones. And, in the case of Waterloo, you need to imagine some 50,000 stinking dead and dying men battling in an idyllic Belgian field.

Luckily for the rest of us, archaeologists have new tools to stoke imaginations. They’re experimenting with virtual reality and augmented reality to bring ancient and historic sites back to life.

Image: Carrawburgh Mithraeum app
An app allows a user to explore a virtual reconstruction of the Roman settlement of Carrawburgh in northeast England.Soluis Heritage

“This is the way things are moving,” says Tom Levy, an archaeologist at UC San Diego. “We believe that VR is extremely useful for scientific storytelling and engaging not only our colleagues but the public in experiencing these sites.”

Right now, Levy isn’t so concerned with resurrecting lost archaeological sites, but rather digitally preserving ruins before they’re lost. As director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at the Qualcomm Institute, he’s leading a project to compile and visualize 3-D data from at-risk sites around the Mediterranean and Middle East.

In 2015, Levy’s team used ground and aerial photography to capture 3-D images of Deir Mar Saba, which dates back to the 5th century and is the largest monastery in the Judean desert. The importance of this type of documentation became clear to Levy when, about six months later, ISIS destroyed a similar Greek Orthodox complex, the St. Elijah monastery in Mosul, Iraq.

“VR is extremely useful for scientific storytelling and engaging not only our colleagues but the public in experiencing these sites.”

“We need to be recording these sites just as a conservation tool,” Levy says. “We have the technology, we should do it, and then we should share it for free.”

Levy’s team is making their images of Deir Mar Saba compatible with VR so that the public can explore the site using an Oculus Rift or trying the immersive VR CAVE kiosk just installed at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. Behind the scenes, the Qualcomm Institute also has several VR interfaces with which archaeologists and other researchers can step inside shipwrecks or dig sites in ways that would otherwise be physically impossible.

Bringing VR to the Real World

Even in you’re not a scientist, there’s a growing library of places to explore from your couch with a VR headset, or just a Google Cardboard and a smartphone, thanks to commercial developers. A Melbourne, Australia-based startup called Lithodomos recently released an Ancient Jerusalem app that lets users see what Herod’s reconstructed Temple looked like in the first century A.D., before much of it was destroyed. You can also explore the Game Pass shelter, known as the “Rosetta Stone” of South Africa’s rock art, with a new VR app from the Glasgow-based company Soluis.

Image: Skara Brae
A virtual reconstruction of a dwelling at Skara Brae, a pre-historic Scottish village.Soluis/Heritage

Seeing opportunities to educate and attract new visitors, museums are getting in on the VR game, too. The British Museum in London, for instance, partnered with Soluis to digitally recreate a Bronze Age roundhouse for a VR weekend in 2015. By stepping inside an immersive dome or putting on a VR headset, visitors could walk around the fire inside a 4,000-year-old house, inspecting swords and other objects they would otherwise only encounter behind glass in the museum.

Another VR exhibit in Beijing’s Forbidden City takes visitors through reconstructions of the porcelain factories during the Ming and Qing dynasties. To transport visitors into a more recent past, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in Ottawa partnered with VR company SimWave to make a rumbling rig that recreates being down in the trenches at the Vimy Ridge battle during World War I.

A Multi-Sensory Experience

Some see the most promise in experiences that go beyond the visuals.

“For my money, the most useful stuff is not the VR, at least not yet, but the augmented reality,” says Shawn Graham, a digital archaeologist at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Augmented reality (AR) and other forms of mixed reality use VR elements overlaid on the real world — think Pokémon Go and Google Glass.

“If you have an AR headset and you’re out in the field, you can see what’s going on around you but then have an overlay,” Eve says of elements sights, sounds, and smells. “It adds so much more to that experience.”

Simulations that can fool your other senses — like 3-D audio to trick your ears or gloves to mimic touch — make for a more effective immersive experience, as sight is just one way we perceive reality.

Eve, however, notes that AR technology isn't quite ready to be a massive hit. He’s waiting to see what companies like the Florida-based AR outfit Magic Leap come up with in the next few years.

But whatever form the VR and AR experience takes, the story is key.

“I think we make a mistake if we imagine that augmented realities or virtual realities are something brand new in the world,” Graham says.

He recalled being a graduate student in the U.K. and taking a field trip to Avebury, a cousin of Stonehenge, with one of his professors. “He was standing there in the middle of this stone circle, and he was telling us this story of coming into this sacred space and he was pointing to the horizon, drawing our attention to different burial mounds, and he was enabling us to see the past in a way we couldn’t see before coming in fresh as students.”

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