Virtual Reality and Immersive Technologies for Interpreting Cultural Heritage in Catalonia

First published on Imps in the Archive on 23 January 2019.

The amazing power of technology means that we can now wander down the streets of ancient cities destroyed thousands of years ago.

But in this lecture by Albert Sierra from the Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency we were challenged to ask whether the amazing interactions offered by the new technologies are necessarily the best way for people to engage with the past?

The Agència Catalana del Patrimoni Cultural was created five years ago to manage sites and monuments owned by Catalan Government. It looks after five museums, one conservation centre and 31 historic buildings and sites. It also has one scientific boat (exiting!). The sites and museums range from Roman/Greek sites, monasteries, castles and industrial spaces as well and attract one million visitors a year.

How to choose a technology

Albert and his team work with all sorts of technologies. To introduce us to his philosophy of what the Agency is trying to do with immersive technologies he showed this AirBnB advert featuring its slogan, ‘Don’t go there, live there’.

“What we are trying to do in our heritage buildings is the same as what Air BnB says you can do in your travels: make visitors feel for some minutes like they are living in Roman times, or have a stronger connection with the past. We do not only go there to watch, we go there to live.”

Albert Sierra

Albert explained though that they don’t neglect older approaches as well, including brochures with text, images and maps as well as newer technologies like audio guides and audio-visual presentations. He stressed that it’s important not to just use the most ‘flashy’ technologies when your needs might be served better by something else. Maybe a really good design for a brochure is what you need of you want to show images or text.

He summarised it as two ways of working:

  1.  We have a problem, we are looking for a solution = GOOD
  2. But 80% of the time we have a solution, we are looking for a problem = BAD

Under pressure from senior management who want to have a new and exciting toy to show off, the technologists often have to ‘reverse engineer’; they need to find an interpretation issue to which they can successfully apply the new technology.

But when the technology and the problem are well-matched the results can be very successful. He showed us three projects that exemplify these.

1. Empúries

Empúries is an ancient city with two sections: Greek and Roman. As a site it can be difficult to understand – it’s a lot of stones! And it’s close to the beach , so the children get bored of looking at the stones and want to go to the beach instead.

Their solution was the classic audio guide but with way-finding, so it guides you though the city, explaining what is around you, where to look and how to interpret it. It describes what is missing, and adds sound s such as the water of a fountain.

It also incorporates storytelling to such as first person accounts to illustrate concepts. For example, insights into the process of Iberian indigenous people adopting Roman identity through the experience of one man who has become a Roman citizen and the difference that makes to him, his personal identity and his feelings about the Romans.

2. Sant Climent de Taüll Church

This project used video projections to show the visitors the original Romanesque frescos in the church.

These had been removed in the early 20th century to be kept safe in a museum in Barcelona but remnants of the original paintings were also left on the wall in the church. So visitors were not staying for long in the church as there wasn’t that much to see.

The solution was to create a virtual copy of the frescoes which was projected on to the space where the original had been, carefully created to align with the last few existing remnants of the originals. But not only that, the projects shows how the frescoes were created, how they were built up layer by layer, until you see the full display.

This video shows the process which involve making a virtual 3D model of the church, and a little bit of what the visitors see.

It’s a case of showing, not telling. The visitor can appreciate more about the iconography as they see it being created. So its not just a projection on an ancient wall but a kind of augmented reality.

Finally it gradually fades away and re-introduces the viewer back to their own reality.

3. Ullastret

Ullastret was the capital of a tribe of Iberians living north of Barcelona. It was a city of 7,000 people but the typical idea about these tribes was that they were quite primitive. So the aim of the project was to enable people to get a better understanding of who these people were, though their city.

There’s a lot of archaeological material because it has been extensively studied. Albert and his team used that in combination with videogame software to make a comprehensive 3D model of the city showing its architecture, surroundings, building interiors and objects. This was a research project in itself as archaeologists made choices about what to include and how things should look. Documenting those decisions is important.

Then, from that initial product, they could generate different outputs – images, videos, an immersive room and a virtual reality (VR) experience – and use them wherever they wished.

But the technology was not the tricky part: in the end, 80% of time on the project was spent on ‘translating’ the archaeological information, and only 20% of time was spent on actually building the 3D model.

The team then exported about 200 photos of the model and uploaded these to Flickr and Wikipedia so when searching for information about Iberian cities, these are the images you find.

They created a video for the site’s museum shown in an immersive room. To create it, the archaeologists made a list of concepts and the people working on public engagement/communications identified emotions, and the project then connected these through places, events, objects and spaces in the video.

The story follows a chief remembering his lost city, walking around the meaningful places in his experience of the city in his mind’s eye, and this enables the visitors to get a greater understanding of the history. For example, he visits the place he learned to fight but this also leads him to reflect on how he was not strong enough to stop the Romans, and to think about the culture and religion that has been overwhelmed by the invaders.

Finally, the video game was exported to a VR format. Technically it didn’t take long but there were issues to address; for example to enable the VR users to move backwards and sideways as well as forward (as in the video). Another decision was to situate the user as they enter the VR experience on a street corner or in a doorway so they are required to make a decision about where to go next.

It was interesting that Albert said that VR experiences are hard to implement in a museum. The experience is so compelling and immersive, people forget where they are. It’s a disruptive and sometimes stressful experience!

Also, at present, VR is mostly an individual experience as having several people participating as a group is expensive and hard to manage. That’s why the immersive room with video was a better option for the museum at Ullastret because families can enjoy it together.

Conclusion

Albert and his team have made some amazing things but his main message was that you have to use the technology that most appropriate for the circumstances. There’s no point making a flashy thing just for the sake of it – it has to have a purpose and place within the whole visitor experience.

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