Guest blog by Dr Matthew Nicholls, University of Reading
I was delighted to present with CONTEXT at the Berlin IFA+ Summit. My own work with digital visualisation and 3D modelling in higher education sits very well alongside CONTEXT’s work surveying the amazing possibilities that Virtual Reality is now opening up. I work at the University of Reading, where I have built a large detailed 3D model of ancient Rome. I use this to generate still and animated images of the city, and also teach my students how to make their own digital reconstructions. Recently I have started using VR in my teaching and public work, turning my digital models into immersive, walk-around experiences. Stepping into these spaces in VR, no matter how well I think I know them, is a truly transformative, engaging experience.
Having to peer around physically, viewing the buildings in proper 3D, makes their scale and splendour much more intuitively visible than viewing them in more traditional 2D illustrations, and opens up the possibility of ‘stepping back into the past’. The potential for engaging students, as both users and creators of this sort of content, is terrific. It seems that the public agrees: I was very interested to see that the recreation of historical events scored highly in CONTEXT’s survey of what sorts of VR experiences are particularly appealing to potential users.
When not presenting, I explored the enormous IFA fair. The VR displays, naturally, were particularly interesting. Here the global market for gaming is the big driving force, enabling huge investments in hardware and software that will also benefit educational users like me. Oculus’ tour bus offered a sample of games and experiences in their Rift headset, including being chased by a T-Rex in a deserted museum, and playing a vertigo-inducing realistic rock-climbing game. Samsung’s lavish exhibit combined headset displays (using their Gear) with motion experiences, including a roller coaster and kayak ride (both using hydraulically-actuated seats), and a bungee jump into a virtual volcano.
Combining real-world motion with virtual graphics has potential for gaming, and also for fairground-style rides like these. It helps overcome two problems long associated with VR – that moving around in a virtual world without real-world physical movement can be disorientating or uncomfortable, and that VR can be perceived as an anti-social sort of activity. I enjoyed all of these ‘rides’; although the amount of physical movement involved was naturally smaller than the huge rollercoaster or bungee arcs suggested by the VR graphics, it seemed to be just enough to fool the body into accepting what the headset was showing.
And of course it had a very high novelty fun factor; as these things become more common, it will be interesting to see what seasoned gamers come to expect in a genuinely thrilling experience. I wonder whether augmented reality, blending digital and real world elements (including other players), will eventually open up more convincing or exciting realms of experience than pure VR.
Elsewhere in the fair VR really seemed to have come of age, and was incorporated into various CONTEXTs – in gaming, naturally, and also in (for example) headsets for drones. Drones are now cheap enough, and easy enough to fly, that they are becoming accessible to non-specialists. I can foresee archaeological uses, for example; drones are already being used in some digs for aerial exploration and also the harvesting of images for photogrammetric site surveying and reconstruction. Feeding real time stereoscopic imagery from a drone into a VR headset would provide a really immersive, exciting vista to the pilot (who would need somewhere safe and secluded to stand while flying it!).
As a university academic in ancient history, this was a very different conference to the sort I usually attend, and very enriching. It’s clear that as the accessibility of VR and 3D continues to increase, both in terms of falling prices and ease of use by non-specialists, the potential for educational uses in many subjects is going to be enormous; it’s exciting to be part of it at the outset.