The virtual time machine - RSA

The virtual time machine


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This time last year our Projects team marked the coming of Christmas by having a whip round and hiring a Blue Badge guide to take us on a wintry, mulled wine-fuelled tour of the area around the RSA building in John Adam Street.

This time last year our Projects team marked the coming of Christmas by having a whip round and hiring a Blue Badge guide to take us on a wintry, mulled wine-fuelled tour of the area around the RSA building in John Adam Street.

It's proving a popular option again this year, although we may just end up touring the local pub... Why? Because we heard stories and conjured up scenes that evening which made this place - in which we spend most of our working week - richer in meaning and significance.

We learned about all sorts of curiosities: the visiting Hawaiian King and Queen who tragically (and embarrassingly for their royal British hosts) contracted pox and died in what is now the RSA in the early 1800s; the rare poo-powered street lamp nearby that is fuelled entirely by methane generated by the sewers below; Dickens' troubled boyhood working in a blacking factory near Charing Cross; and the plaintive hunger of a young student Gandhi, while studying at UCL among carnivorous Londoners, until he found and joined the London Vegetarian Society.

My commute into work has never been quite the same. I appreciate the place that bit more, and notice things I didn't before. It's understandable that we should feel a much closer connection to places that somehow animate the unfolding historical relationship between places, people and their buildings. You start to feel yourself part of that evolution: both shaping and shaped by it's course.

Attachment to place (is it too dangerous to call it pride?) as a foundation for active citizenship, community life and social innovation, is at the heart of some of our current work today, especially through our Arts work in Peterborough.

But the RSA has long been interested in making this connection. In 1866 it launched the Blue Plaques scheme which commemorates places once occupied by accomplished and celebrated people, and is now sustained by English Heritage. As the latter's history relates: From the outset, the aim of the scheme was to celebrate the link between person and building, and to make ‘our houses their own biographers’ (in the words of a correspondent to 'The Times', 1873).

Why, if this connection is powerful, and we benefit from making it, do so many sites of interest fail to inspire in this way? Where are the innovative C21st equivalents of the blue plaque? At most attractions I visit it's still the classic guide book and audio guide combination. But they fail to realise the potential the sites offer.

I remember on my first visit to the Forum in Rome being frustrated by the difficulty of trying to visualise its original splendour from the mismatch between the crumbly ruins and the grainy and amateurish artists' impressions in my guide book.

From this and other experiences like it I had the idea a few years ago of trying to create an on-site augmented reality experience that would allow the visitor to blend the past, present, and alternative futures of a site at the click of a button. It would convert historical records, representations and maps, and narrative accounts as well as counterfactual or future plans into 3D landscapes that would be portable, smart and regularly refreshed. It foundered on the problem (among many) of finding the right hardware to make it mobile. That was before the arrival of the iPhone.

As is so often the case when you have a "bright idea" which you think novel, it turns out to be anything but. It  turned out (unsurprisingly) that other people far better qualified than me were thinking along the same lines, and making progress. So what's out there?

To help us visualise we have started to see the creation of virtual environments that allow us to wander the site online, like this basic one of the Forum, or this much more ambitious virtual Rome.

With the advent of the iPhone and GPS the move is now to make these representations mobile. Google have an app which allows you to compare modern buildings with photos of them from the C2oth. And a group called iTacitus are working on an app to take this back into any period of history (or alternative futures) along the lines of the idea I had originally imagined. But as the demo video on the link above shows, it's still pretty basic, and I gather is still in development.

Once you combine rich visualisation with audio to deliver narrative accounts and make it portable, augmented reality becomes a powerful way to "see through" space and time, and connect people to place in an unprecedented way.

Such things are understandably being marketed as ways to drive tourism and visitor attraction to historical sites. But they could also be used  to engage people in future planning decisions, to provoke debate and attitudinal shifts by representing alternative visions of places, or to educate.

So here's my end of a long day, rather-random-blog question.

How could we use such a platform to generate both social and economic value for local communities and places with interesting stories to tell? Could we find a way to capitalise on the "hidden wealth" that exists in the form of old maps, historical accounts and paintings, as well as future architectural or artistic visions?

By collating and sharing such information with the software providers like iTacitus could local historical societies, archivists, amateur collectors, urban planners, artists, software developers etc collectively generate income as part of a place-making social enterprise? Their contributions could now be valued in the marketplace and used to create attractors for local tourism and encourage the development of local software industries, as well as enhancing place-making initiatives such as area-based education programmes in local schools.

Is this already happening? Is it worth even considering? If there is potential I'd be interested in exploring this idea further. If not I'll just make do with the mulled wine this year.

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