How to experience what the Romans actually did for us

Picture: Rob McDougall

When a group of project workers set off in 2009 to digitally scan five of Scotland’s World Heritage sites, and five more from around the world – including Mount Rushmore and the Sydney Opera House – the platforms to deliver the data they were collecting, in novel and engaging ways, simply did not exist in a format that would have made its dissemination commercially viable.

Conservation scientists, surveyors and archaeologists from Historic Environment Scotland spent the next five years 3D laser scanning and using stereo photogrammetry to record some of the world’s most recognisable historic sites.

By good fortune, the gaming industry was at the same time developing immersive virtual reality technologies and the combined results have the potential to transform how we engage with our past.

The Scottish Ten project, which involved Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation & Visualisation (both partners came together as the Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation) was a significant piece of Scottish Government-funded work.

It was designed to help Scotland project its influence on the world stage, by forging close ties with international colleagues at places like the 11th century Rani Ki Vav royal stepwell in India, and the Eastern Qing Tombs in China.

But it is only now, with the advent of affordable virtual reality headsets and smartphones which can deliver that data to people’s fingertips in a range of different formats, that the work that was done can be brought to the masses after, in the words of Dr Lyn Wilson, who steered the project for HES, the technologies “caught up” with the data that was captured.

“When we started the Scottish Ten the technology wasn’t there for us to disseminate any of this information that we had collected, so the best we could do with our data – unless you had really specialist software that cost a lot of money – was to create an animation or a still image of 3D data,” said Wilson.

“But in the last 18 months, the arrival of affordable easy-to-prepare data for virtual reality headsets – and that’s really been through the explosion of gaming technologies and software platforms such as Unity and Unreal gaming engines – have let us put our 3D data from the laser scans into these gaming environments, which in turn has let us put them into the VR environments.”

I cannot satisfy my curiosity about how these sites look in virtual reality without giving it a go. The next day I meet James Hepher at a squat, un-prepossessing industrial unit in South Gyle on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I’m not sure what to expect, but have an idea in my head that I would be led to some kind of experiential gaming suite, perhaps with some calming mood lighting.

Instead James, a surveyor and spatial analyst at HES who travelled around the world to record the data at the sites, sits me down in the kitchen, where some of his colleagues are busy having lunch. Surrounded by kettle and food prep noise, James initialises a Samsung Gear VR headset and checks its vital signs. All good.

He hands it over and suddenly I am transported to the courtyard of Stirling Castle. It must be an odd sight for people lunching to see me wearing a pair of goggles, craning and tilting my head to look up to the Great Hall and the castle’s parapets, making what can only be described as gentle cooing noises.

Next, I am transported to the Sydney Opera House, followed by Rani Ki Vav and then to the 5,000-year-old Maeshowe Chambered Carin, which is part of Neolithic Orkney, one of Scotland’s very own World Heritage Sites.

Maeshowe in VR is astonishing. With the use of a PlayStation controller, I enter a narrow passageway and all of a sudden I am standing in a vast tomb, confronted with a series of options to read some of the inscrip-tions on the wall of the chamber, left by Vikings in the 12th century.

Much of it is basically graffiti, the latter-day equivalent of ‘Olaf woz ere’, but the ability to see into this chamber – which in reality can only accommodate up to 20 people at one time – has huge potential for disabled visitors who would be unable to squeeze through the entrance, for which crawling is required. It also has an application for people who may suffer from claustrophobia and for cruise ship visitors, who can arrive in numbers of 500 a time.

What I have been most looking forward to, though, is ‘visiting’ Bar Hill Fort, a Roman fortification whose foundations along the Antonine Wall – built from AD142 to 144 and which ran across Scotland for 37 miles from Bo’ness on the River Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde – have been meticulously reconstructed from all the available data captured by the project, and even feature the reimagin- ing of some of the artefacts excavated from some sections of the wall.

Being immersed in this environment is exhilarating and the only regret is my slightly blasé attitude to James’s warnings about motion sickness, telling him that my wife occasionally suffers from it (not me) if she tries to read in cars. I duly set off at such a pace around this maze-like construction – unsuccessfully trying to enter a tent at one point – and descending and ascending gangways at a frenetic rate, delighting in seeing what a Roman encampment might have looked like, that I completely forget the warning.

Within a few minutes the headset is removed and I’m asking James for a glass of water. That’s the only downside of this experience, as far as I can see it, but Dr Wilson tells me that the latest VR platforms, such as the HTV Vive, come with in-built motion tracking, and so in time, once developers have harmonised visual processing with how the balance centre of the inner ear copes with the sensation, that feeling of nausea is likely to disappear.

As a newfound convert to VR, it’s a prospect that already has me enthralled and the hope for HES is only to add to what has been achieved through the Scottish Ten. The next step, Dr Wilson tells me, is to try and secure Heritage Lot- tery Funding to ensure HES realises its ambitions to turn these data sets into viable educational material for schools and community groups.

As we speak she tells me of a headset that has winged its way to classrooms in Orkney. And in time she hopes that the Rae Project – a separate piece of work to 3D image all of HES’s 336 properties – will add yet more to the billions of data points already collected by the organisation.