June 24, 2006

A digital future for the past

Posted at 8:42 pm in Greece Archaeology

Only in the last few years have museums been able to take advantage of computer technology to recreate virtual representations of monuments or artefacts to enable visitors to understand them better. New technology being developed means that soon it may be possible to recreate the context of the entire ancient city surrounding sites such as the Athenian Acropolis as well.

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Probing past memories in a digital future

Most of us find it rather hard to picture ancient times when viewing old bones and stone fragments in dusty museum display cabinets. Now archaeological artefacts can come alive with the help of European research that uses augmented reality, computer game and 3D-image technology to illustrate the past.

“It is sometimes hard to get a good idea of what it is you see when all you see is ruins,” says Tijl Vereenooghe, from the University of Leuven, one of the partners in the IST-funded EPOCH project.

The project consists of a large network of 85 cultural institutions, university and museums joined in a united effort to resurrect cultural heritage sites. The ambitious project work entails illustrating what modern technology can do to attract a greater audience to cultural heritage sites as well as coordinating actions among cultural institutions so they don’t have to invent things again, explains Vereenooghe.

“EPOCH has outlined a number of issues worth investigating, as they are pointed out by heritage professionals as necessary and useful, or they correspond to missing tools in the production pipeline of cultural communication,” explains EPOCH coordinator, Prof David Arnold at Brighton University.

From that point of view the project is identifying useful technologies, adapting it to the cultural heritage market and setting necessary standards to ensure interoperability between the different tools, he continues.

One of the identified bottlenecks is the lack of software tools, and EPOCH has promoted and is financially supporting the creation of the NEW TOols Needed (NEWTON) project within EPOCH. Some of these software tools are already available within NEWTON, such as a web service for creating 3D models from photos, which is now available to cultural heritage institutions and will be further integrated into other software tools.

Another set of software tools supports the creation of large-scale site models and has been tested at the excavation of Sagalassos, in Turkey. With the help of a head-mounted display, a camera and a tracking device the tool creates 3D models of buildings, based on rules that describe a particular architectural style. “Visitors will be able to see virtual reconstructions of disappeared monuments superimposed on the scene through special glasses, giving a feel of the original appearance of a site in situ,” explains Franco Niccolucci, EPOCH Director for Training and Dissemination at Florence University.

“From an archaeological point of view, it now becomes possible to reconstruct large sites at low cost. Previously, 3D modelling has all too often focused on a limited number of landmark buildings, without the context of sites surrounding them. Producing entire city models was just too expensive, so we got a Parthenon without Athens, and a Colosseum without Rome. Thanks to EPOCH this no longer needs to be the case,” explains the University of Leuven’s Prof Luc Van Gool.

Computer-generated humans -avatars, will act as multilingual guides in this computer-generated world, explaining about the visited site. With the help of interactive storytelling, visitors will be able to personalise the story according to their interests and the time available for the visit, explains Niccolucci.

To further enhance the user experience the project has developed a cost-efficient prototype that uses widespread techniques known as ‘rapid prototyping’ and 3D scanning. The resulting prototype replica, which was applied to a rare carved ivory head of an abbot’s ceremonial staff from the end of the 11th century, is touch-sensitive and is displayed three-dimensionally, Niccolucci explains.

Another set of software facilitates the work of the archaeologist on the excavation site and makes it easier than before to track results and data. “It is something very interesting for researchers because it memorises and reproduces the intimate structure of an excavated site after it has been destroyed by the excavation itself,” Niccolucci says.

These software tools only represent a small selection of EPOCH’s entire work; the future will bring even more EPOCH tools, says Dr Buhalis, e-tourism expert at the University of Surrey and one of EPOCH’s partners. “As younger generations are much more used to interactive interfaces and dynamic interactions the new user experiences will be based on personalisation and customisation, interaction and interpretation to enable people to engage more with the exhibits.”

So next time you visit a museum or an archaeological site, things might look very different from those dusty display cabinets. EPOCH may, with its applications of the future, take you on an unforgettable virtual tour of our past.

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