The popularity of virtual reality and augmented reality has become prevalent in contemporary technology, but it’s use in studies of culture and history is considerably ground-breaking. The differences between virtual and augmented reality are small but significant; augmented reality involves the use of an already-existing background, and necessitates the user to be in that space in order to avail of the augmented reality technology. The user is still aware of their own surroundings, and engages with them accordingly. Virtual reality, on the other hand, involves total immersion of the user in an artificial, computer-generated environment, but that environment does not use real space in its creation, meaning that virtual reality platforms can be accessed from a wider range of locations. Both forms of technology involve great awareness for spatial analysis, as it is the accuracy of mapping and GPS data that gives the technology its authenticity and gives the user a more believable experience.
Augmented reality is the most accessible of the two, as it can be used via most smartphones or tablets which contain a camera and a GPS. The objectives and usability of augmented reality is a lot more useful in the context of history and cultural heritage projects than virtual reality, as it can be integrated into all manners of different, existing forms of culture consumption. For example, geotagging can be used to create an augmented space that corresponds with different backgrounds in the vicinity to display historical narratives. This narrative can be accompanied by, for example, a guided tour of a city which narrates specific events in history. Augmented reality experiences can therefore be guided or self-directed, depending on the uses of the technology by the user. The most popular existing form of self-directed augmented reality technology presently is the mobile app-powered game, Pokémon GO, which launched in the summer of 2016.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, is a much more immersive and sensory experience for the user, but it does have the benefit of not needing to be in a specific location to work, and due to its immersive quality, is relatively self-directed for the user. Virtual reality museums and immersive video games are niche but are growing in popularity, as audiences become more familiar with alternative forms of technology. A good example of virtual reality is the Battle of Mount Street Bridge (BMSB) project, run by An Foras Feasa, but this platform does not have the same level of sensory experience as that of virtual reality museums or video games. BMSB has the user experience of using maps and annotations to guide the user through a narrative of the battle at Mount Street Bridge during the 1916 Rising, and centres this narrative around the necessary curriculum for Irish secondary school students, so that they may avail of the platform to aid with their studies.
The uses of virtual and augmented reality in culture studies is a useful technique to allow the user to ‘experience’ the history that took place at certain sites. The spatial awareness is of the utmost importance, as incorrect mapping and narrative of certain sites provides an incorrect historical narrative. In terms of culture and history, virtual and augmented reality platforms offer a more entertaining, realistic, immersive and believable account of historical events, so it is easy to understand why they are fast-becoming popular forms of historic experience.
Jim Dawson, Augmented Reality Reveals History to Tourists on LiveScience (Web, 2009).
Tony Higgins, Peter Main & Janet Lang, “Imaging the Past: Electronic Imaging and Computer Graphics in Museums and Archaeology”, Volume 114 of Occasional paper, London: British Museum (1996).
Costas Papadopoulos, Virtualising and Augmenting Spaces and Places, Lecture, An Foras Feasa, 20 Oct 2016.
Aaron Saenz, ‘Augmented Reality Does Time Travel Tourism on SingularityHub (Web, 2009).