The British Museum Offers a VR Tour of the Bronze Age

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, September 14th, 2015

Close your eyes and imagine roaming the Earth during the Bronze Age: wide-open savannahs and forests teaming with exotic wildlife. Primitive people living together in small tribes, using basic technology and following the migration paths of animals to survive. Unless you’ve read Clan of the Cave Bear, it’s probably difficult to imagine in a deeply visual way what this world would have looked like 3000 years ago. But a new innovation from the British Museum is effortlessly bringing guests back to the Bronze Age.

Virtual reality is at the center of the British Museum’s latest project. In recent months, we’ve explored a proliferation of new technologies and initiatives applying VR to theme parks. Companies are looking at opportunities ranging from using VR to create high immersion attractions to the potential of technology like Oculus Rift to develop entirely virtual entertainment destinations. But virtual reality may have a broader application than we ever imagined: virtual time travel. Museums in the UK are experimenting with the potential of virtual reality to help visitors more effectively engage with collections and to expand the educational possibilities of the museum platform.

Guest at British Museum

The idea came out of an educational need: students in the U.K. must learn about the Bronze Age as part of the core curriculum for students ages 7 – 11. Since roundhouses were entirely demolished and physical evidence of the period is rare, teachers have found it a challenging period to teach about. The British Museum chose to develop the Bronze Age experience to augment its educational program – although it has direct implications for future attraction development as well.

The British Museum partnered with Samsung to create the experience which was demonstrated during a dedicated weekend in August. In 2009, Samsung and the British Museum launched a formal partnership and established the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre. The center launched with the objective of putting the British Museum at the forefront of digital learning and exploration. The Bronze Age project, while initially a pilot, will integrate into the museum’s ongoing educational efforts later this year. Guests got a sneak peek at what they could expect when the technology was revealed to the public last month.

Guests over 13 who attended the event received Samsung Gear VR headsets to wear; families with younger children could access the content using a tablet or by entering an immersive dome that featured interactive screens. Attendees visited a replica roundhouse within a settlement designed by Soluis Heritage. Soluis Heritage does pioneering work in visualizing the past through CGI, animation, and many other technologies.

Guest photo from British Museum's Bronze Age weekend

The roundhouse visualization was paired with 3D scans of selected items from the museum’s collection. The 3D scans were created as part of the Micropasts project. The design of the Bronze Age roundhouse environment was informed by the work of Dr. Neil Wilkin, who curates the Bronze Age collection at the British Museum. Participants explored multiple interpretations of how the objects might have been used in the past. Featured objects include two unique interlinked gold bracelets discovered at Woolaston in Gloucestershire. Visitors also experienced different lighting and atmospheres, exploring a growing research area that suggests a ritual context to houses being aligned with the sun.

The interactive version of the Bronze Age settlement is built around small details. Visitors put on the Gear VR headsets and find themselves in a field. Looking around, they are standing in the middle of a village. As they move toward the nearest roundhouse, they step inside. A fire burns in the central hearth. Objects litter the floor. Once attendees remove the headsets, they’re able to interact with the 3D scans. Together, the whole experience provides important context for a time period that’s difficult to understand and envision.

As attraction visitors expect deeper levels of immersion and engagement, virtual reality is a powerful tool for achieving that objective. More bluntly stated, entertainment designers are always asking whether a specific type of attraction can compete with the on-demand nature of video games. VR technology is allowing museums and other institutions to create their own virtual game-like environments with underlying educational objectives.

Images sourced courtesy of the British Museum and Twitter

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