A ‘groundbreaking’ immersive 3D exhibit focused on one of The Glasgow School of Art’s collection of plaster casts will be unveiled today. It was created by the GSA’s School of Simulation and Visualistion (SimVis) in partnership with the leading Scottish digital media studio isodesign.

The exhibit was developed with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research council as a blueprint for how developments in VR/AR technology can be used to enhance visitor enjoyment and understanding of museum exhibits and attractions through a set of design guidelines.

Digital Laocoön, which took around nine months to develop, harnesses virtual and augmented reality technologies to tell the story of Laocoön, one of the GSA’s collection of plaster casts which was damaged in the fire of 2014 and is presumed lost following the fire of 2018.

The VR/AR experience brings the viewer right into the heart of one of the Mackintosh Building studios, where they encounter a life-size rendering of the sculpture. Walking around the space the viewer’s experience is then augmented with historic images from the GSA’s Archives & Collections and specially made films, that tell the story of Laocoön and how industry-leading conservation techniques were developed using the GSA’s plaster casts following the 2014 fire.

“Digital Laocoön was developed as an exemplar of how state of the art digital technology can be used to enhance visitor experiences,” says Professor Steve Love, senior researcher at the School of Simulation and Visualisation. “It shows how 3D technology can be used to give wider access to exhibits and how virtual interaction with museum exhibits can increase both enjoyment and learning.”

“It was due to be first used by the public at the reopening of the Mackintosh Building later this year, and has acquired a special poignancy following the fire last June in which the plaster cast of Laocoön was almost certainly lost.”

Laocoön is a figure from classical mythology. He was a Trojan priest who, together with his two sons, was attacked and killed by giant serpents sent by the Gods. The Roman author, Virgil, gives Laocoön the celebrated words: “Do not trust the Horse, Trojans.  Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.”

A sculpture of the death of Laocoön and his sons, attributed to sculptors from ancient Rhodes, stands in the Vatican. The Laocoön featured in the 3D exhibit is a plaster cast of the sculpture in the Vatican. It is one of a collection of casts that was used in teaching at the GSA.

isodesign, a world-leader in interactive and immersive technology, has worked on projects including the Titanic Belfast Experience, First World War Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the award-winning Gallery of Lost Art with the Tate, its first online only exhibition.

 “We now have access to very powerful visualisation tools that can place audiences at the very centre of immersive experiences,” says Damien Smith, partner at isodesign said. “The techniques we used on this project – where we took high-resolution 3D scans, archive images, film and 3D sound – allowed us to tell a truly dramatic story of Laocoön and provides a template for how other cultural institutions can unlock their most precious assets, presenting them to visitors in new and dramatic ways.”

Having developed this initial version of the exhibit, the team is about to embark on the next stage of the project, which will see them explore how the VR version can be experienced by a wider audience and develop a version for schools and higher education. The schools version will align with the Scottish curriculum for excellence.

“We are also looking at how the AR version can be further developed on smartphones and tablets making the experience more portable, and how the ‘personal’ experience of VR can be displayed in real time to a wider audience using virtual green screen techniques,” explained Professor Love.

“By using the gaming technology with which young people are so at home we hope to be able to engage them with more with their cultural heritage,” he added.