Virtual time travel through pre-reformation Edinburgh

Research Policy Office
Tuesday 1 August 2017

In “A View from a Hill”, a ghost story by M. R. James, an archaeologist’s binoculars allows them to see scenes from the past. The Edinburgh 1544 project enables visitors and residents of Edinburgh to see the city as it was just prior to the reformation.

We use mobile phones and the Google Daydream platform to deliver an onsite dual reality experience. As visitors explore the sites of Edinburgh, they can see into the past using their digital time travel binoculars. The app is mobile and orientation aware, automatically delivering the correct view. A map interface allows an engaging experience for remote virtual visitors as well.

The binoculars app enables the user experience to be optimised for technology they already have in their pockets.

  • It makes virtual time travel a reality and available to mass audiences.
  • It provides a new way of interacting with the past that both enriches the visitor experience and provides insights into the past not otherwise readily available.

What is the research? 

The VTB design draws upon EPSRC-funded research at the University of St Andrews into dual reality systems where the virtual and real worlds occupy the same space. Position and orientation within the two worlds are synchronised enabling intuitive exploration of both worlds through movement in the real world. The Smart History team investigated dual reality systems through exploring inside (St Salvators Chapel) and outside (St Andrews Cathedral) using modified Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard VR headsets. This led them to observe that users tended to look around whilst using the headsets.

Observation of users led the researchers to a viewpoint-oriented approach, where high fidelity 360 photographs of a reconstruction were used and developed in the UNREAL4 Game Engine. This allowed the digital content to be hosted and displayed on mobile platforms and does not require the virtual reality viewer to be tethered to a bulky computer.

How is it applicable? 

Pre-reformation Edinburgh Netherbow
Pre-reformation Edinburgh Netherbow

This research has been applied within The Virtual Time Binoculars (VTB) project and is a core component of the Smart History company founded by Dr Katie Stevenson from the School of History and Dr Alan Miller from the School of Computer Science. The VTB is a Edinburgh Digital Launchpad project funded by Innovate UK.

In VTB the team developed a digital reconstruction of pre-reformation Edinburgh. The Smart History team brings together a multi-disciplinary team of Computer Scientists, Digital Designers, Digital Media producers, Historians and Museum Professional. They have CAA-approved drone pilots, Google-approved 360 photographers and prize-winning historians working together to create engaging mobile onsite experiences.

The historical work has been conducted in consultation with Prof. Richard Fawcett of the School of Art History and John Lawson, a Edinburgh City Council Historian. They also worked with the National Trust for Scotland and the Timespan Museum and Gallery in developing the technology used in the app. They have worked with Edinburgh City Museum to provide a permanent showcase for the project.

The Medieval Edinburgh App was launched at the start of May 2017. It is expected that the VTB will become a ‘must have’ part of the experience of visiting Edinburgh.

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