Virtual Reality and the Lockdown

Longread by Prof. Dr. Minna Silver (4 to 5 minutes)

The world has changed from the beginning of the new decade 2020, when the pandemic COVID-19 known as the corona virus has spread to different continents with unexpected consequences.

The world has vividly appeared to be a more vulnerable place for humankind than earlier in modern times has been expected as even the superpowers do not find remedies and answers to the problems. People in many countries are locked in their homes, in restricted areas, and boarders have been closed. Who could have imagined this scenario a half a year ago? But in the lockdown people have found ways to contact each other and keep their routines, although there has been considerable down shifting. Many have become new “Robinson Crusoes” in their environment. Cultural heritage has value as itself, and now its value has been especially recognized to bring special delight, sharing it and keeping one in a good mental health in the lockdown.

The developments in digital documentation and enhanced ways to approach spaces and places with virtual reality can now be seen as a special blessing, when there is not easy access to sites. Previously wars, environmental disasters or political barriers have prevented the access to some places. Now we are imprisoned in our own environments. When one cannot move and visit different sites, the value of recording and documentation of history, sites and monuments for research and tourism will be appreciated in a different way. For research the accuracy of data capture and the increase of open ways to share the data have become more imminent needs. Virtual tourism actualizes and brings delight finding new visitors to experience the sites that are not accessible. CyArk has been in the forefront in recording world heritage sites in 3D and bringing them to be viewed.

Rome Reborn, Courtesy Bernard Fischer.

For school children and students virtual reality provides an extra dimension for learning about spaces and sites for their studies from home if the schools and universities are closed. Serious games can offer another window to the cultural heritage and virtual worlds. As far as the visits to the museums are concerned, several exhibitions have been opened virtually – even the launches of recorded concerts, operas and ballets have been extended to the world wide web. NASA has provided a way to dive virtually in the coral reef and map it. Wrecks can be also visited in virtual diving

One year ago I participated in an expert meeting in Copenhagen to bring cultural heritage to smart cities, and it opened my eyes to new ways to integrate cultural heritage into the streets. We can now in the lockdown see the need and appreciation of the development of smart cities that are taking cultural heritage into account. Shared cultural heritage provides unity locally and globally in these challenging times. A recently published book Digital Cities: Between History and Archaeology by Maurizio Forte and Helena Murteira (ed.), by Oxford University Press (2020), addresses some of these issues.

Historical cities can make various layers of sites in the past visible and approachable in virtual ways and in this way provide timescapes. There are already various examples to bring sites visually to mobile devices like smart phones or to have little kiosks with screens or virtual glasses/headsets (possibly taking into account the augmented reality) here and there to study and experience a particular spot from different time dimensions and various angles. 3D provides a possibility to immersive experience with goggles or virtual glasses.

For a timescape let’s look at the Rome Reborn project  led by Professor Bernard Fischer. I used to study the Cultural Change of Late Antiquity and the time of Emperor Constantine the Great in Rome in the 1980s. Then we as young researchers in a cultural institute did not have personal computers yet and could not much imagine that one day one could provide the changes in the topography of Rome in a digital form. Television could have provided some ideas in an analogue form, but Professor Fischer tells that he already had this idea of virtual Rome in mind in the 1970s.

Now one can visit Rome of AD 320 virtually and see how the city topographically looked like and observe changes. In some extent these kinds of reconstructions entail interpretation and can never fully reach reality; this also concerns archaeological reconstructions in general. But they offer us a valuable dimension to the past, although not replacing it. They just provide another dimension and possibility to experience space and time. One may have extra wishes in texturing and visualizing the building materials, but it all requires more studies of individual buildings, work, time and money. In any event, the Rome Reborn project deserves appreciation in grasping the space and the topography. Now we have a possibility to get some idea of a layer of Roman history in a time capsule and fly over the “eternal city” in the heyday of Late Antiquity.

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