Technical Innovation and Virtual Heritage

Access, communication and participation are key words in the information age we live in. Those who communicate our cultural heritage must adapt to changing time and be careful not to drop behind in the race. Rapid technological development is indeed challenging and it is very costly to install new technology which becomes obsolete in a few years. This has held many museums and centres back in getting on the wagon. Over the last decade, however, a lot has changed. Cheaper and more accessible solutions have seen the light of day. What once took many experts to create can now be done after watching 1-2 instructional YouTube videos. And the necessary programs are accessible and free up to a point. Today, the smallest museums and centres can easily utilise the internet and various programs to create an unforgettable experience and communicate their material in more diverse ways than before. 

The virtual worlds of Skriðuklaustur on display at a public event. Photo SBG.

The first video games for the open market arrived shortly after 1970. In the last decade, the market has multiplied, with better access to powerful computers and smart devices. Through these games, virtual reality has developed with the aid of game engines. The user is drawn into the virtual environment which constantly becomes more realistic. Some of these engines have open access which those who work with cultural heritage can utilise. In the game engines, you can recreate the past and bring it to life in high-definition virtual reality. The technology advances rapidly and within a few years we will probably be able to travel between computer-made virtual worlds and the reality without any problems.

One thing is certain: the boundaries between what we know physically and virtual reality will disappear one day. It will no longer be “either/or”; we will transition seamlessly between the real world and the computer-generated world.

Goethe, Ole. 2019. Gamification Mindset. Pg. 129. Springer International Publishing.

Gamification of the cultural heritage rests heavily on digital data and digital access. We must have something in our hands to play with, naturally we can’t use the artefacts being preserved or run across delicate ruins. This is where virtual reality steps in – the virtual heritage which we gain when we computer-generate 3-D models of ancient buildings or transfer an actual artefact into 3-D form on computer screens using photogrammetry. 

For the last two decades, virtual heritage has been in constant growth. Many big collaboration projects centred on digital archaeology and computer-generated cultural objects have seen the light of day. International standards have been set to guide people in this work, with a strong focus on the importance of the fact that digital interpretation can never replace actual artefacts or objects.[1] However, this digital preservation of cultural objects is more important than you might think. The cultural heritage of our times is under no less of a threat than it was in olden times. The 21st century has seen the destruction of religious icons in conflict areas, theft of archaeological heritage to finance warfare, seen museums and cultural landscape destroyed in fires or natural disasters created by climate change and experienced the irreversible damage caused by mass tourism.[2]

Virtual heritage opens a digital gateway to the cultural heritage which is important for all communication. The visual presentation and models add significantly to the visitors’ experience at heritage sites where you can recreate buildings and artefacts. Digital access to data is constantly on the rise, photography museums are a good example. Most of them are now accessible on the internet, which offers a chance for a deeper discussion and experience. Open access leads to more diverse usage and people can view data on the internet regardless of where they are in the world. Computer designed replicas of buildings and tools can be used for scientific research as well as exhibition and gamification.[3]

The virtual heritage most often seen in museums is: 

  • Recreation of ancient buildings with 3-D models.
  • Artefacts communicated through 3-D images, 360° images etc. 
  • Preserved artefacts displayed and moveable on touch screens.
  • Cartoons/animation which show ancient customs or events.
  • Recreation of ancient societies through creation engines.

The Magic Box – our phone

The technical wonder of the 21st century which has probably changed our lives the most is the smart phone. Less than fifteen years after the first one appeared on the market, about half of humankind has one in their pocket. 

The smart phone can maybe be likened to the Swiss Army knife which was marketed at the end of the 19th century and developed into a multifunctional tool. The smart phone is an incredible multifunctional tool when it comes to data collecting and documenting. Instead of a stuffed backpack with tools and equipment, maps and books, you can go on a field trip armed only with your phone. You can tape audio, take photos and shoot films, coordinate your location and create 3-D images of the environments and items through apps. You can use the phone to access all databases and also to operate a drone which allows you to look at your environment from above.

In the changing world which will follow Covid-19, when museum visitors become more aware of all contact surfaces, the smart phone will grow even more important. It can replace various technical equipment which we use to communicate information in museums and exhibitions.

Your phone can store audio guidance, share photos and movies, activate QR-codes, elicit augmented reality (AR) and show 3-D virtual reality (VR) with simple additions like Google Cardboard. Hence, the smart phone is one of the most important devices in any gamification of cultural heritage, be it in or out of doors. There is even no need to build an app from scratch to create interactive education and games. Numerous platforms and systems are accessible through the internet where it is possible to enter information and adjust their presentation on the user interface of the user’s phone. A good example of this is Locatify’s content management system

[1] The Sevilla Principles of Virtual Archaeology were published in 2011 and based on London Charter from 2006.

[2] Kenderdine, Sarah. 2014, April. “How will museums of the future look?”. TEDx Talks.

[3] De Freitas, Sara. 2013. “What can gamification add to cultural heritage?”.

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