Embracing immersive technologies will be a key determinant of success within the heritage space
By Nicole Stewart Rushworth, Immersive Technologist at Digital Catapult
Over the last decade, there has been a shift in audience expectations of heritage spaces and how people can engage more actively with the history of the world around them. With the advent of more accessible and affordable immersive technologies, there is more opportunity for audiences to explore heritage through interactive and engaging simulations. The heritage sector is continuously looking for ways to help visitors connect with heritage on a deeper level, fostering a greater appreciation for the significance and value of the past, and immersive technologies can facilitate this.
When discussing immersive technologies we are using the term as a wide-reaching umbrella, covering augmented and virtual reality, spatialised audio, interactive and responsive screen-based experiences, in addition to many more technologies that aim to create a sense of immersion. As more guests expect to be immersed in the rich history of the venues in which they visit, embracing this type of technology will be a key determinant of success within the heritage sector.
At Digital Catapult, I’ve seen how heritage and cultural venues have benefitted from leveraging these technologies. Not only are audiences able to immerse themselves in history through a creative lens, but this technology also provides an effective means of preserving endangered and fragile artefacts and sites too.
Unveiling the hidden worlds of historical artefacts
Through the applications of immersive technologies in the heritage sector, creating digital replicas allows audiences to engage with history and heritage in ways that were previously considered impossible. Audiences can get up close and personal with digital objects and locations, for example using augmented reality to display photorealistic scans of objects, or digital overlays of sites to add extra layers of interactivity and context that can be sometimes missed in traditional experiences.
An excellent case study of this interactivity would be BBC’s 2018 Civilisations AR app, where the BBC, as a tie-in with a BBC 2 programme by the same name, scanned 40 objects from around the world and made the app freely available. Civilisations AR was featured on Apple’s App Store ‘App of the Day’ and remains popular today. Civilisations AR proved to be a tool for both education and enjoyment, allowing users to experience museum artefacts in their own world, through highly detailed scans and an easy-to-use augmented reality platform.
Such technology democratises access to rare objects, allowing new audiences to experience new dimensions of artefacts from the past. Such technology can allow heritage venues to combine the physical environment with an enhanced and informative digital experience, appealing to broader audiences and yielding more success in the long-term.
Exploring the past through new perspectives
From bringing museum objects into your living room to flying a Lancaster bomber on the Dambusters mission, immersive studio All Seeing Eye created Immersive Histories: Dambusters, supported by Digital Catapult and Arts Council England through the CreativeXR programme. This virtual reality piece allowed audiences to experience the raid from the perspective of the Lancasters flying the famous mission, and the experience went beyond just virtual reality. The project utilised haptic feedback, hand tracking, and specialised audio within a physical reconstruction of the Lancaster plane to create a realistic, incredibly immersive experience that gave audiences a sense of what it was like to be part of history.
All Seeing Eye worked with the Royal Air Force Museum Museum and the Imperial War Museum to create an accurate experience that toured the UK and was in situ as a ticketed experience in the RAF Museum. The project demonstrated the value of embracing immersive technologies in the heritage space, offering guests an informative and entertaining experience, and subsequently generating another stream of income for the museum, yielding success on all fronts.
Cultivating new experiences through context
With advancements in scanning technologies from Lidar scanners being introduced to mobile phones, AI-enabled photogrammetry, and portable scanners that can be taken to site, we are entering the next stage of investigation and preservation. The ability to scan and capture locations and objects reduces the impact and risk of handling, foot traffic, and transport. Preserving the past for the future has never been easier and is becoming increasingly more accessible.
Giving context on physical experiences is a great strength of blending heritage and immersive technology. Having experiences in situ at historical sites or alongside objects and artefacts encourages audiences to engage and interact with history beyond what could otherwise be seen as looking at a pile of rocks or a field and being asked to imagine. One of the supposed golden rules of storytelling is “show, don’t tell” and immersive experiences really allow audiences to be shown history and experience it for themselves.
Walking around a historical site with a designed audio experience that allows you to hear history and the words of the people who stood in the same spot as you can be moving and impactful. Alternatively, taking what might be seen as an innocuous way to view a site such as a telescope and transforming it into an augmented reality experience as SENSEcity did with their Historiscope installations across Scotland can be a transformative experience too.
Making the adventure more accessible
Taking you to places that you would have never otherwise thought possible is a true strength of immersive technology that adds value to audiences’ learning and understanding of heritage and history. Immersive technology is not only facilitating access to what has long been considered ‘impossible’, but also allows for greater accessibility and inclusivity in spaces that were previously inaccessible. For those with mobility or sensory difficulties, accessing heritage sites and engaging with heritage in a meaningful way can be difficult, but immersive technologies allow for heritage to come to you. It is vitally important to consider accessibility and inclusivity in the design and development of immersive experiences across all sectors, and having options for accessibility in experiences only allows for more people to be part of these experiences.
Organisations such as XRDI and XR Access are championing diversity and inclusion throughout the immersive technology ecosystem, from how we design hardware and headsets, to the content created, and how it can be experienced. This is key during the development of content for the heritage sector, and is a priority for institutions that seek to engage with a wide range of audiences. This inclusivity leads to better outcomes, ensures that heritage institutions remain accessible to all, and yields more success within the heritage sector.
Through the Heritage XR programme, being delivered by Digital Catapult, in partnership with Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival and supported by Wired Sussex we are excited to be exploring the heritage of Brighton Dome and the Corn Exchange with three amazing creative studios OmBeond, Immersive Networks, and SENSEcity. At the time of writing, we have just commenced the programme and it is inspiring to see how the long and varied history of Brighton will come to life through 5G-enabled immersive experiences. Read more about the programme, if you’re interested in learning more.