The Tourist and the Time Machine: are visitors and staff ready for on-site real-time virtual reconstructions?

Paper presented on December 13, 2001, by Donald H. Sanders, PhD, at a European Commission Eureka! conference entitled Advancing Archaeological Sites: exploring technology and the theme park experience., Chania, Crete, Greece.

posted here November 13, 2019


Thank you Prof. Pandermalis and the Eureka officers for their gracious invitation to speak here tonight; and also to Niki Dollis for all her capable assistance. Good evening--kali sperasas--to our hosts, fellow archaeologists, colleagues, and guests.

Tsoungiza, ancient Nemea, trenchWhat's it like to visit an archaeological site (see a typical site at the left; hover over to enlarge)? Many sites seem little more than scatters of unrelated stones and holes in the ground. Even archaeologists often have a difficult time interpreting what they're seeing, without some kind of supplemental visualization or descriptive text. Most sites offer a guidebook or brochure containing perhaps a plan or a reconstruction drawing and some history of the different occupation phases of the site. Some sites offer signage with reconstructions of the ruins at specific locations or vantage points. Some sites have interpretation centers providing slide shows or movies to prepare visitors for what they will be seeing. Some sites still have elaborate sound and light shows dramatizing events that made the location famous. But it's difficult to imagine the complexities of history based on only isolated images, a few drawings, or summary explanations. It's difficult to see away later phases and understand the full extent of earlier occupation levels; it's even more difficult to visualize how artifacts might have been used or discarded or to envision people actually living and working at the site.

So, how can we understand the nuances of everyday life in an ancient and foreign culture and lifestyle? A simple answer is just "give us more information." But as the Internet has shown us, access to masses of data isn't everything.

What if, instead, you stop by the visitor's center first and a 3D digital full body scan is made, so that a computer model of you is built. Then you pick up a digisuit--a wearable time machine that allows you to explore the site and its museum and see the digital model of yourself wander the site. You go through different time periods, with each space fully reconstructed and fully populated, in interactive stereo 3D with all the senses activated. With a flick of a switch you can see both the actual remains and the virtual re-creation of the past. You flick another switch and watch as the virtual weather changes or wall heights change; as you test various probable historic scenarios for any given time period. You interact with the virtual population and ask them about their site, their lives, and their environment.

inside a virtual Assyrian palaceYou've been virtually transported back to relive the site's history for a near first-person experience of the past, as if you actually were there on vacation or for a symposium. You take pictures of the virtual place, record virtual inhabitants' reactions to your questions, even alter the course of events, and interact with other timetraveling tourists or scholars (see a sampling of that experience from the screen grab of an interview inside Learning Sites virtual world of an Assyrian palace; hover over to enlarge). Fellow archaeologists could actively debate whether their interpretation of the past matches what is found in the archaeological record.

When the visit is finished, you take home a personalized DVD of your experience, and it comes with links to Websites and Webcams to follow other travelers' re-creations and conversations at the site. Accompanying software allows you to test hypotheses or invent new scenarios and submit them to experts for testing and visualizing, perpetuating the process of interpreting the past and specific sites for yourselves and subsequent visitors. Here we have the virtual time machine.

How close are we to achieving this? Do either site visitors or site directors want this type of experience? What is currently being tried? What role do 3D interactive digital re-creations of ancient sites have in building a lasting, exciting, and engaging visit to a heritage site? Can we supply an enjoyable, unique, and educational experience for everyone--including children and adults, scholars and laypersons, or those that don't speak the native language? Can we use such approaches to encourage more people to visit archaeological sites, and to impart to visitors much more understanding about the sites than they now get, without destroying the sites further? These questions lead to larger issues, such as, what is the purpose of an archaeological site? Teaching? Entertainment? Scholarly research? Test bed for restoration? How important is it to experience the real thing versus simulations of it? What is the cost of making the experience? Maintaining it? Admitting visitors to it?

I'll spend my time tonight addressing these questions from a computer technology point of view. Specifically:

  • How do we at Learning Sites deal with re-creations of the past?
  • What lessons have already been learned from displays at museums and site visitor centers?
  • What do we think the public may want and who is the public?
  • What are some of the technologies used now for site interpretation centers? and
  • What does the future hold?

First, we can refine the definition of virtual reality provided in the background paper for this workshop, to include the many types of VR.

Augmented reality is simultaneously receiving supplemental virtual data about the real world while navigating around in a physical reality, usually via a pair of glasses, one eye of which is receiving data from a computer while the other eye sees the real world.

Telepresence is use of a robotic vehicle and viewing system to give a feeling of being present at remote real locations with the ability to manipulate objects at that remote location; this was pioneered by Robert Ballard with his Jason submersible.

Cave Automated Virtual Environments, or CAVEs, were introduced by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois in 1992. They are essentially one or more walls, sometimes also with ceiling and floor, onto which are projected stereo images from computers mounted behind them. As a CAVE viewer wearing stereo glasses moves, a location sensor tracks movement within the display boundaries, and the correct perspective and stereo projections of the environment move with and surround the viewer. It is total immersion; the projection systems create surroundings that make you feel you are walking into an enclosing space, without being physically linked to a hardware device.

VR can be delivered over the Internet (using VRML, Virtual Reality Mark-up Language, or other proprietary Web3D software), or on individual desktop computers, or through expensive panoramic curved-screen reality centers, or on personal immersive head-mounted display systems.

 Learning Sites

montage of Learning Sites projectsWith that as a very simplistic background, I'll say a few words about what we do at Learning Sites (see some sample projects at the left; hover over to enlarge). We design and develop educational, research, and exhibit materials using interactive 3D digital models that are based on actual excavated evidence and that are reconstructed to the highest standards of scholarship for diverse audiences. We're not a graphics house, but a company with a professional staff of archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, architects, graphic artists, information scientists, and programmers. We know and understand the needs and language of the study of the ancient world. We're one of the pioneers of the field now called virtual heritage, having built our first complex virtual ancient world (with an avatar and links to an outside database) way back in 1994.

We believe that virtual ancient worlds should be more than pretty pictures of the past. It's easy to create a 3D textured model; it's difficult to create an accurate, well-lit, detailed, and complex re-creation of an ancient environment and then link objects in it to relevant teaching tools, research resources, and display modules that educate as much as entertain.

Palike dining hall reconstructionFor this visitors' center (see the images from the Learning Sites interactive museum package; hover over to enlarge), Learning Sites developed a Virtual Heritage solution that offers a glimpse into local history. It includes such details as fully furnished rooms and 3D characters whose physiognomy derives from local townspeople and whose clothing is based on studies of ancient figurines depicting soldiers who probably used the building.

Northwest Palace rendersOur installations for museums are varied, but the most complex is the virtual re-creation of the massive Northwest Palace at Nimrud (see sample images at the left; hover over to enlarge), which is used also for college courses, exhibit display, testing distance education using CAVEs, and implementing artificial intelligence-based roving agents to act as virtual site interpreters.

For museums and on-site interpretation centers with artifacts and buildings that the public wants to see, VR-based exhibits boost visitors' appreciation and comprehension. Archaeological site personnel need to hear this from a public demanding interactive content and from venues who've had success with just such displays.

 Lessons from the Museum World

Now, let's examine what's been learned from our and other's work with museums and archaeological site visitor centers. What does the public want; what do museum and site directors want; what do we in the content and technology arena have to offer?

First, a little history. Cultural heritage collections in general up through the early 1960s tended to be self-contained worlds, internally defined by prestige and privilege. Collections had a pleasant building or site, a private staff to look after it, and sufficient finances to maintain an isolated aloofness. Visitors, largely professionals or connoisseurs, came to study and admire what was displayed before them. Collection staff maintained an ideal of self-restraint in their display of art, history, science, and culture, seemingly under no obligation to serve the population at large.

Fortress at BuhenBy the mid-1980s, we had the simultaneous rise of the MTV generation, the Internet, virtual reality-based exhibits, and simulation rides. By 1994, everybody wanted to do VR (see one of our exhibits at the left; hover over to enlarge). VR-based displays were built for museums, shopping malls, theme parks, and conventions. Staff at these venues noticed that when VR was used, attendance and media attention increased, and a new way to educate emerged, in which the audience actually paid attention.

But, by late 1995, the growing rush to install such interactive exhibits evaporated. Just when virtual reality gained mainstream acceptability, it began to disappear from the public scene. Nevertheless, virtual worlds continued to be built mainly due to the advent of VRML, the increasing speed of computer processors and graphics cards, better resolution headsets, and falling hardware prices. The content was still being generated, but the willingness of cultural heritage collections to commit to exhibits that included VR weakened.

By the late 1990s, heritage collections changed marketing strategies toward blockbuster exhibits. The shift to the notion that sites and museums existed to entertain the public was noticeable both in the increasing visibility of education departments, whose staff became actively involved in exhibit design and content, and in the increasing number of museums and archaeological sites with Websites, commercial advertising campaigns, and large concessions.

Automated collection management systems, email, and intranets appeared. Some museums and site interpretation centers added rooms with computers for visitors to explore information about artifacts in more depth, individually with no impact on other traffic. But these computers were usually separated from the actual objects or site ruins, contained primarily text and still 2D images, and presented information in a format akin to looking through a picture book, but with hyperlinks. These computer systems didn't embrace the unique advantages of the new medium.

Chapel of Ka(i)pura exhibitionIn any case, attendance continued to increase at places that shifted focus--that is, toward being educational and entertaining. IMax and OMNIMax theaters have been very successful in this regard. But what happened to the interactive displays? By the late 1990s, although digital displays persisted (such as Learning Sites examples; hover over the image to enlarge), VR-based exhibits had all but vanished (with some notable exceptions, such as at the Natural History Museum, London; Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and the Museo del Corso, Rome; similarly, only a few archaeological sites turned to high-tech exhibits, such as those at the Jorvik Viking site, York, England).

Today, the public is more computer literate and more technologically adept, aware, and demanding. However, many in the heritage field firmly believe that the duty of any heritage location is to its collection, not to an ill-defined and fickle audience or to corporate sponsors. That the artifacts or ruins by themselves should remain the supreme rationale for a visit. Many object to educating tourists by distracting them from the wonder and awe inspired just by being in the immediate presence of the best that the past has to offer. Within this belief system, there is no room for cutting-edge computer or simulation technology.

current uses of VRSo, although virtual reality now has many applications (hover over the list at the left to enlarge), active integration with collections of cultural heritage materials at present isn't one of them.

current concerns about VRThe issues raised by directors, curators, and exhibit designers seem to fall into 3 categories; I present them in no particular order of significance:

1st Category -- Concerns about the Hardware:

Problem -- Computer hardware in general has gotten the reputation of being unreliable and beyond the ability of everyday staffpeople to fix. Head-mounted displays break; software freezes; screens get fingerprints on them; projectors and joysticks fail. Archaeological sites pose environmental problems of blowing dust, changeable temperature and humidity, and damaging ultraviolet light. Heritage sites can't afford the downtime and are unwilling to invest in training technicians to maintain their in-house computer systems.

Possible solutions -- Computers are more reliable than they used to be, but they are still apt to be mishandled, especially since we like to use the very latest technologies. We can't ignore the fear of being left with a broken exhibit or bills for costly repairs. We need to choose systems robust enough for continuous use by a nontechnical public. We need to design multimedia displays that require a minimum of maintenance. We need to design displays that are protected from the elements. And we need to convince directors that investing in a technically proficient staff is in their best interest in the long run (maybe, we need to teach site staff how to use and fix the technology as we install it).

Problem -- Cost is one of the most common reasons that we've heard for not using the technology. Museums or heritage sites just don't have the budget for what they consider frivolous high-tech extras, tangential to their collection's focus. And no location wants to buy equipment for only one exhibit or unchanging content.

One solution to such financial constraints is to convince relevant personnel that planning an exhibit or organizing a visitors' center means also planning, from the beginning, to include immersive technologies, and not considering digital displays an afterthought, when most of the budget has already been allocated. Further, we need to show that state-of-the-art hardware can have a long shelf-life, be recycled for future displays, and retooled for new content for little cost beyond the initial investment. For example, equipment can be used to display interactive 3D models of objects in storage, making them available to visitors even when exhibit space is not. In this way, building 3D computer models of objects can be seen as a form of preservation.

Problem -- In the early years of interactive graphics, virtual worlds were often of low resolution, because the display mechanisms were also low-res, and the processors and graphics cards couldn't handle large or heavily textured worlds. So, navigation was too slow, and the worlds looked clunky. Poor-resolution and poor optics caused motion sickness. All this gave VR a bad reputation.

At the same time, the public's expectations rose dramatically, due mainly to the influence of computer graphics wizardry in movies and the fast-paced, heavily interactive nature of computer games. So, the initial enthusiasm for just being able to experience VR soon wore off, and the public began to demand better-looking virtual environments, and more realistic movement and interaction. When the VR community couldn't deliver, heritage institutions and the public became disenchanted with the expensive gadgetry.

The hardware and software are now good enough, fast enough, and of high-enough resolution to be able to deliver environments up to the public's expectations. Unfortunately for us, as the technology has improved, the reputation of VR has not, and few museums or visitors' centers are taking a second look.

We need to educate clients and the visiting public about the differences between what content providers can deliver and what Hollywood and the video game industry are producing. We need to show that comparison between the two isn't even appropriate. What the virtual heritage discipline creates is based on the real world and the historical past, not on fantasy. Our stuff can communicate more real information per cost dollar--and ultimately is more valuable and more satisfying in the long run--than even the most stunning special-effects movie.

2nd Category-- Concerns about the Compatibility of Computers and Artifacts in the Same Space:

Problem -- There are historical reasons for museums' and site interpretation centers' reluctance to embrace computer-based technologies. They revolve around the view that the fundamental role of such places is as shelters for cultural artifacts; as guardians of irreplaceable objects and spaces. That the relation between object or ancient site and viewer must remain passive, with only a minimalist label as intermediary. Marble statues and a rear projection screen; gold jewelry and a computer kiosk; bronze figurines and immersive 3D environments. These can be jarring contrasts to museum and archaeological site staff. There's still a widespread feeling that museums and sites are places of contemplation--that the visiting experience should transcend the mundane and do without commentary. Technology is seen as worldly and non-artistic, and any additional information is distracting. In this view, there is little concern that the public may appreciate an object more knowing how it was made, why it was made, how it was originally used, or how it came to be in its present location.

Solution -- We should be sensitive to the gallery and site as places to commune with beauty and craftsmanship. On the other hand, we need to nurture the viewpoint that objects alone do not form a link to the past, that appreciation of the object in isolation of the human stories that surround it presents a shallow window on history and the nature of our shared heritage. Learning more about different cultures and ways of life can help to promote tolerance of different solutions to life's problems, and acknowledgment of the diversity of the human spirit. A solitary artifact or ruined wall by itself can't do this. An artifact placed into a simulation of its original context, with explanations of its function, its creation, and its connection to people's lives can.

Problem -- It is perceived that computer terminals will disrupt traffic flow. Visitors tend to hog the machines, and some people will get frustrated waiting in long lines to get their turn. Viewers need to move through visual experiences at a steady, even brisk, pace.

Solutions -- It is perhaps contradictory that the perceived need to move as many people as possible through exhibits is antithetical to the desire to keep the galleries and sites open for silent and prolonged contemplation. There seems to be a double standard here, one for blockbuster exhibits whose aim it seems is to make money and get positive media reviews; and another for the casual visitor who merely wants to wander the sites and contemplate the artifacts at his or her own pace.

The contemplative visitor will most likely bypass any computer kiosks or immersive VR stations and thus won't pose a throughput problem. For the more major exhibits and popular sites at which crowds will gather, displays can have clocked access to limit a user's time at the computer; they can have multiple stations; they can have large screens so that many people can seem to participate; immersive displays can be designed to accommodate medium-sized groups efficiently; and subtle visual devices can be programmed into the worlds that move people along.

3rd Category -- Concerns about the Content of an Interactive exhibit:

Problem -- Directors and educators are uncertain about the credibility and effectiveness of virtual re-creations. Can staff be sure that they are getting accurate visualizations that are based on reliable data relevant to the location and objects on display?

Many claim to be able to do 3D modeling and convert their models for viewing with VR apparatus. Too many groups with too little expertise claim that they have the qualifications in archaeology, architectural or art history, or anthropology to be able to make the proper judgments about the evidence used as the basis for reconstructions. It is easy to create with simple and simplistic 3D models. It is, without doubt, difficult and expensive to get it right. Yet in order to maintain credibility in the academic world and not misinform the public, we must strive to create truly precise, accurate, and detailed interactive content that is as compelling as it is correct. And then come up with creative ways to display it that blend computer screens, real art, and educational content into a coherent experience.

Problem -- Can site directors and the public be convinced that VR has real pedagogic value beyond being a set of fancy moving pictures? Once they've gotten over the excitement of playing with the technology, can we convince them that there is more to offer?

Solution -- Evidence indicates that the public will be thoroughly engaged and thrilled when viewing interactive displays, provided we get some things right: the images must be high-resolution, there must be no delay in the motion tracking, there must be a purpose to the display that is directly discernible and related to the exhibit or specific remains. We also need to be able to show what parts of our images are based on conjecture and what parts are based on fact. It is not appropriate for us to present our visualizations as if they were certifiably true in every detail. To quote a famous or perhaps infamous pseudo-archaeologist / adventurer: "archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it's truth you want, the philosophy class is right down the hall." We need to explain that we are interpreters of evidence and facts, not purveyors of truth, despite the word "reality" in our moniker.

 Technologies Already in Use at Archaeological Sites

With those caveats as a backdrop, let's now look at some of the ways interactive computer exhibits are currently being integrated into the archaeological site experience. These new systems go well beyond the standard audio guide, or kiosk with a site plan.

Els Vilars AR exampleThe University of Lleida, Spain, has developed an augmented reality site visualization tool using a hand-held flat panel screen that allows 6-degrees of navigation through VR re-creations of a site while walking around the ruins (see examples of the panel in use at the left; hover over to enlarge). Using the Iron Age fortress at Els Vilars, Spain, the team is studying various user-interface issues and designs, including--where on the tablet the navigation icons should be located, how should the user click the icons, what weight for the tablet is most comfortable to carry, should there be a neck strap to free up user's hands, and how does sunlight affect the image on the tablet.

ArcheoguideThe Archeoguide project is based here in Greece and formed from a consortium of international telecomm, graphics, and IT companies with the Greek Ministry of Culture; and we're lucky to have a representative of the project here (see images of the unit in use at the left; hover over to enlarge). This system will provide approaches for accessing information at heritage sites also using augmented reality, interactive 3D visualizations, and mobile computing. A tracking system will determine the location of the visitor within the site. Based on the visitor's profile and position, relevant audio and visual information will be transmitted to the portable guide. The system will address the requirements of a wide user base including visitors, site managers, researchers, and content creators. Tests at the site of Olympia are underway in preparation for the 2004 Olympic games.

National Parks AR telescopeSeveral national parks in the United States have also added augmented reality stations (see an example at the left; hover over to enlarge) to view archaeological remains on far distant cliffs and other inaccessible locations. The telescope-like device superimposes animations, virtual re-creations, and other information over real fossil remains.

Ename kioskThe Ename Center in Belgium has a different approach (see their kiosk at the left; hover over to enlarge). Their TimeScope system consists of a video camera, a computer, two monitors, and a touch screen. A specially designed on-site kiosk houses the system and protects visitors from the elements. The video camera is directed toward a section of the archaeological remains, and transmits real-time video images of those remains to the monitor screens in the kiosk. By using touch screen icons on the main monitor, viewers pull up digital reconstructions of the successive structures that stood on that spot, superimposed precisely on their surviving foundations.

Jerusalem archaeology parkThe Jerusalem archaeological park uses of virtual reality technology to inform visitors about the history of the Temple Mount, the slope of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, and the Valley of Hinnom (see examples of the their models at the left; hover over to enlarge). Using high-end VR hardware from SGI, the park provides a rare integration of immersive computer and conventional exhibit technologies at an archaeological site.

The Jorvik Center, England is a reconstruction of the 10th-century Viking Age city of York, incorporating businesses, backyards, and bedrooms. Visitors ride around the commercial heart of the city in time capsules, gliding a few inches above Viking rubbish, over house remains, and up the main street. Commentaries are available in a number of languages, smells are present, and visitors are able to see the excavated artifacts displayed both as they were found by archaeologists and how they might have been originally used.

One of the new technologies that many projects utilize is short-distance wireless communications. Bluetooth, conceived initially by Ericsson, provides low-cost radio links between mobile computers, mobile phones, and other portable handheld devices, as well as connectivity to the Internet. The small Bluetooth chip (competing with the faster IEEE standard) plugged into any computing device, takes information normally carried by cables, and transmits it instead at a special frequency to a receiver Bluetooth chip.


VR misconceptionsSo, what have we learned: that there are some popular misconceptions about computer-based exhibits (listed at the left; hover over to enlarge).

Lest you think these aren't real concerns, let me mention two situations emerging right now. Curators and museum administrators in England are launching a scathing attack on government museum policy. They will accuse the government of distorting museums' work by loading them with social policy priorities, and of pushing them to replace real specimens with electronic games and virtual whizzbangs. Museum officials have said, "The original purpose of museums is being lost to a vast array of other activities," and that "Museums are supposed to care for, study, and present collections."

And of particular relevance to this gathering is recent news from Italy, where there is government-level debate about whether heritage sites and museums should act more like themed attractions with blockbuster shows aimed at attracting masses of people or whether heritage sites should remain places for contemplation, reflection, and intimate gatherings of small groups.

There are some things we can do to move these debates in the direction of an appreciation for interactive displays. Here are some; and surely we'll discuss these in more depth tomorrow:

  • User demographics: age, native language, level of background knowledge, any disabilities
  • Climate: temperature, moisture, dust, sunlight
  • Hardware: cost, size, weight, maintenance, durability, interface software
  • Human factors engineering
  • Delivery method: at the site or in interpretation centers, rides, kiosks, hand-helds, personal stations, wearables, combinations
  • Content: multimedia, real-time navigation, immersive potential, relevant, accurate, precise, detailed, database links beyond visual, alternative interpretations, difference between conjecture and evidence, entertaining-enganging-educational-amusing
  • Impact: not disruptive of the surrounding visitors or artifacts, personal systems
  • Relationship of archaeological sites to theme parks: in purpose, intent to attract visitors, in crowd control capabilities, in funding, in fragility of the infrastructure, ability to tell a story, in type of sensory stimulation they should provide, fragility of the environment
  • Can real history and contrived history coexist in the same location; would the public become confused or disenchanted if the lines between theme parks and archaeological sites were to blur; can the same attractions be used for both?

Before I wrap up, a bit about the future. Soon, interactive 3D re-creations of the past will benefit from access to 3D projected sound; vast knowledge bases linked to n-dimensional semantic networks; independently roving intelligent virtual agents and virtual site interpreters to whom you will speak directly through natural-language parsers and gesture recognition systems; worlds will be lush with vegetation and dirty with garbage and billowing dust. Simulation of reality will improve, and before too long VR will be passe, giving way to high-res, stereo projection holograms, whose prototypes I have seen. Some innovations already exist, like the ability to actively change virtual worlds, to show what we know and what we don't, and to access multiple information datasets.

VIZIN organizational chartPerhaps eventually there will also be regional centers to coordinate complex displays that are beyond the capability of sites to handle, like the Institute for the Visualization of History (a newly formed nonprofit organization that has grown out of Learning Sites' work; see its organizational chart at the left; hover over to enlarge) or like the Foundation of the Hellenic World, in Athens. The immersive and interactive exhibits of these regional centers could be linked with other cultural institutions locally and around the world; and the institutions could also help train the next generation of digitally savvy travelers.

We can now see that my opening scenario is not far from plausibility. Just imagine, as Douglas Cruickshank wrote in 1996: "The promise of virtual reality is a computer-human interface which, in a sense, takes the computer out from in between people and the information with which they are interacting." This was the dream of the early visionaries of VR for education. With the current hardware and software, a bit of imagination from this workshop, and an understanding of past pitfalls, we can make this happen, if we remember that the display and experience of the past need not be constrained by the technologies or habits of the past.

Close this presentation and return to the Index