Virtual reality is bringing ancient buildings back to life

11 Jun 2018

Ulster University, where scientists are using VR to breathe new life into old buildings. Image: Willy Barton/Shutterstock

Dr Joan Condell of Ulster University explains how museums are being brought into the 21st century, thanks to VR. TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports.

Ulster University is involved with an international project utilising virtual reality (VR) to impact Ireland’s tourism sector.

Managed by Museum Nord, the €2m CINE project has nine full academic partners across Norway, Iceland, the UK and Ireland, funded by the Interreg Northern Periphery Programme.

“We’re using VR and AR [augmented reality] for sustaining and protecting culture and national heritage,” said Dr Joan Condell, Ulster University senior lecturer.

vr image of building

Image: TechWatch

Partly, this is a way for museums in Ireland, the UK and northern Europe to get their visitor numbers up.

“Museums are struggling with lowering visitor rates; they constantly have to redo their sales pitch,” explained Condell.

The answer? Enabling the 21st century to wow museum-goers and to draw in those who are sitting at home, who might be convinced to come out.

Working with Donegal County Council, the team of academics is building interactive exhibits, of which VR and AR will comprise the main elements.

These high-tech exhibits will also bring in games to get people interacting with them. Even more futuristic, in VR, you could enter buildings that now lay in remains, experiencing the walls, rooms, windows and ceilings as they were centuries ago.

“In addition, VR could be used to repatriate artefacts from bigger museums,” Condell said.

vr image of building

Image: TechWatch

What does that mean, exactly?

“There may be an artefact in the British Museum, for instance, that originated in Donegal. Visitors to Donegal could see an immersive AR piece; you see and experience it like the object is in front of you, when it really isn’t,” said Condell.

I guess that means famous museum pieces can reside in two places at once. Maybe we could get the David or the Mona Lisa to Northern Ireland. It might sound like a joke, but this is the promise of how VR can shake up the arts. How many pieces have you filmed so far?

“These projects are about getting people together, many of whom are volunteers. It’s not so much about creating exceptional VR in the lab – it needs to be something realistic that these Donegal communities can use,” said Condell.

She went on: “We were in Killybegs running a workshop about their old church site and, well, to see how they can market this site. It has a rich fishing heritage, so we have that in common with the Norwegian areas in this project.”

On the Killybegs project, researcher Niall McShane commented: “We’re reconstructing in VR the church, graveyard and holy well – these sites have centuries of history. They originate from the 15th century, and the Spanish Armada visited this area.”

On which VR viewer will it be available?

Condell said: “They’re keen on the Oculus Rift; I’m not so much keen on using the latest tech as using something that you can sustain after the project is done. Really expensive kit isn’t going to be maintainable by the community group.”

McShane said: “It’s going to be a 3D experience with 360-degree photospheres. We’re hoping that the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and mobile VR will all be able to access these VR films.”

What else are you developing in AR?

McShane said: “It’s early stages yet but I’m working on a location-based AR game akin to Pokémon Go. I’m experimenting with datasets from heritage sites and archaeological sites. You’ll be able to view the scene around you on your phone, and points come up on a map showing areas of historical significance.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Ulster University. Image: Willy Barton/Shutterstock

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland