The Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality in Technological Reproductions of Historic Environments


Virtual Reality (VR), sometimes referred to as immersive multimedia, is a computer-simulated environment that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds. Virtual reality can recreate sensory experiences, which include virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, touch, etc.

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

VR and AR technologies are nothing new. Since Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir David Brewster’s 1838 stereoscope (image 1) artists and technologists have been in search of new and innovative ways to create 3D experiences and immersive recreations of the real world.

Image 1 Wheatstone and Brewster’s stereoscope (1838)

However, with the advent of ever expanding electronic platforms and manufacturing technology, the opportunities for digitally and physically representing historic environments have never been greater.  Commonly, analog AR technology already exists through site-specific installations like those found in Carnutum, Austria (image 2) recreating the Roman Heidentor (heathen’s gate) for the benefit of visitors.  Similar VR technology re-creates the caves of Lascaux directly to your personal computer (web link).  

Carnutum Heidentor.jpg
image 2 Augmented reality station of the Heidentor in Carnutum, Australia (2004)

With the emergence of new digital platforms like the Oculus Rift, opportunities for VR/AR to recreate historic contexts are becoming more and more easily accessible.  3D modeling and rendering technology also allows for technology platforms to recreate historic contexts with ever-greater degrees of precision and realism.  Games like Assassin’s Creed recreate in full detail historic moments of Boston, Rome, New York, Venice, and Paris for the viewer to explore and engage with, effectively immersing the player into the past and allowing the opportunity to explore history for him/herself.  How then can architects, designers, and heritage professionals prepare for future opportunities in the emerging world of virtual and augmented reality?

image 3 Players explore and engage with the urban context of Boston in Assassin’s Creed III (2012)

The answer lies in accessible platform integration and a healthy mix of market practices with private and academic research.  Where gaming technology is still limited to platforms that are not accessible to everyone (the price tag for an Oculus Rift hovers between $150 and $300), virtual and augmented reality can be made increasingly available to cell phones vis-a-vis the built in gyroscope found in almost all smartphone devices.  This gyroscope allows your phone to detect when it is being used in landscape or platform orientation, but it also allows for more specific shifts, such as knowing when you are looking North versus West, up versus down, etc.
For our class’s infill design challenge this semester I recreated our site in UnrealEngine 4.2, a software that integrates with Oculus Rift to create a first-person experience exploring the streets of Fishtown (image 4.1 and 4.2).  

Street 1.jpg
image 4.1: recreation of Fishtown site in UnrealEngine looking south ( 2014)
Street 2.jpg
image 4.2: recreation of Fishtown site in UnrealEngine looking north ( 2014)

At our final review in order to provide a more accessible, non-oculus experience I simply
printed out our project site at ⅛”=1’-0” scale onto two pieces of foam, held the two sides of the street apart from each other, and allowed critics to ‘explore’ the site for themselves (image 5).  I predict in the future it will be possible to create an urban context and architectural design on a mobile-platform-ready software so that reviewers (and in the working world, clients) can explore the design for themselves at the flick of a finger.


Image 5 physical recreation of Day Street printed at ⅛”=1’-0” scale onto two pieces of foam, held the two sides of the street apart from each other and used by critics to ‘explore’ our project site


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