FINAL ESSAY ON AUGMENTED REALITY IN ARCHAEOLOGY AND CULTURAL HERITAGE: APPLICATIONS, BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES

 

Augmented Reality is a relatively new and exciting digital technology which amalgamates elements from the real world with digital objects.  With the advancement of mobile telephone technology, the use of Augmented Reality has become more ubiquitous and varied.  My paper will focus on defining what Augmented Reality is and its relationship with Virtual Reality.  In recent years, a plethora of projects have come to life which are focused on the implementing of Augmented Reality technologies in the areas of education, cultural heritage information dissemination and for the enhancement of the visitor’s experience to museums, and archaeological/heritage sites.  In my essay I will also explore some of these different projects and examine their benefits and shortcomings.

In order to appreciate the benefits of Augmented Reality technologies and their implementation in cultural heritage and archaeological projects, it is both necessary and problematic to define what Augmented Reality is.  Some specialists view Augmented Reality as a derivation of Virtual Reality and not as a separate technology (Pujol 3).  Others, for example Milgram and Kishino, define Augmented Reality as a type of Mixed Reality environment in which Real Environment is “augmented” (or supplemented, enhanced) by virtual (computer graphics) objects (Milgram and Kishino 1322).  Mixed Reality, as defined by Milgram and Kishino, is “one in which real world and virtual world objects are presented together within a single display, that is, anywhere between the extrema of the virtuality continuum”.  In this “virtual continuum” Real Environment and Virtual Environment are at the two opposite ends and Mixed Reality is anything in between, including Augmented Reality (Milgram and Kishino 1321).

Having in mind the foregoing definition, both Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality can be construed as part of the “virtuality continuum” but the difference between the two is that Virtual Reality is a completely synthetic environment while Augmented Reality is a combination between the real and virtual world elements.  From another perspective “augmented space” can be defined as physical space which is filled with “electronic and visual information”, overlaid with “dynamic data” emanated from video and other types of surveillance, mobile and wireless media, computer and video displays (Manovich 221,223).  Manovich further distinguishes between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, between immersion and augmentation, on the basis of the scale of the used electronic display.  He does not oppose Virtual and Augmented Reality but rather differentiates between them based on the size of the display, stating that the TV monitor and cinema screen for example, immerse the user into a virtual reality, whilst if a cell phone or other small device is used to watch the same movie or play the same game, the user remains aware of their physical surroundings which have been augmented with “additional information” (Manovich 225).

Regardless of the exact definition, Augmented Reality can be characterised as an environment in which real and virtual world elements co-exist.  This characteristic of Augmented Reality is of importance to Cultural Heritage and Archaeology as it presents valuable possibilities for education, research, and enhanced visitor experience to museum and archaeological sites.  It is important to point out that in Augmented Reality, the real environment can be enhanced, not only by visual means (computer graphics, text and pictures) but also by audio and video, as well as other sensory modalities for example touch and smell.  Presently the most popular applications of Augmented Reality are those that use visual means (Mohamed-Amin 13).  There are other projects that attempt to include other senses, for example touch.  The combination of visual and haptic cues enhances the sense of authenticity (Dima et Al. 3,11).  Presenting virtual and abstract information in combination with multiple sensory experiences, as Milekic suggests, is far more beneficial and natural for humans when gaining knowledge and information from their surrounding environment.  He further states that there should be a movement towards tangible virtualities or “tangialities” which can make cognitive experiences for the public easier and more efficient (Milekic 385).

There are multiple projects in existence which exploit the potential of Augmented Reality in Archaeology, in museums and Cultural Heritage sites.  One of the most important benefits of using Augmented Reality applications is creating an “authentic” immersive experience.  This poses the biggest challenge which developers of Augmented Reality applications face – the challenge of recreating the elements of the real world correctly and overlaying the synthetic elements in such a way so that the experience feels “real” for the user in order for the feeling of presence, of “being there”, can be preserved (Eve 8).  This is usually done by superimposing the virtual elements onto a live feed from a web camera, Head Mounted Display (HMD) or a mobile device (Eve 6).  One advantage of Augmented Reality is that it does not make the virtual objects the focus of activity as in Virtual Reality, but at the same time, it possesses high level interactivity, both with the virtual and the physical objects at the same time.  The interactivity option is a useful feature that can be implemented in representing and managing cultural heritage objects and sites (Mohamed-Amin 117-118).  Other benefits include the possibility to link multiple sources of information, such as (text, audio, video, etc.) with the specific object and then augmenting them in the user’s view.  This feature together with the location aware characteristics, makes Augmented Reality superior over other multimedia touring techniques when representing information, both indoors (in museums, galleries, historical buildings) and outdoors (in archaeological sites and other cultural heritage sites) (Mohamed-Amin 120-121).

An example of such application is the ARCHEOGUIDE (Augmented Reality-based Cultural Heritage On-site GUIDE) which makes use of outdoor tracking, 3D visualisation and Augmented Reality techniques, to deliver an “authentic”, interactive and personalised on-site experience for the visitors to the archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.  Digital technology is used to reconstruct ancient buildings and monuments, thus giving the visitors a unique insight into ancient life.  ARCHEOGUIDE provides the visitor to the site with a personalised experience which is tailored according to their profile and behaviour throughout the tour (Vlahakis et al. 52).  The ARCHEOGUIDE users wear head-mounted displays (HMD) and carry mobile units which track the visitors’ position on the site.  In this way the system is enabled to render 3D reconstructions on top of the ruins in real time (Vlahakis et al. 53).  There were three types of Mobile Units tested – laptop, pen-tablet and palmtop, each one having different degrees of portability and functionality (Vlahakis et al. 57).  When tested, the ARCHEOGUIDE proved to be beneficial for enhancing the visitor’s experience through the Augmented Reality reconstructions, audio narration and navigation, in real time, and tailored to the user’s movements on site. The main flaw was the cumbersome equipment that had to be carried on the tour.

These drawbacks are avoided in projects which use mobile phones for Augmented Reality touring.  An example of an interesting project for such Augmented Reality touring is the Mapping Ararat: Jewish Homelands Project which is based on Mordecai Noah’s 1825 plan to establish a city of refuge for the Jews on Grand Island, New York.  Through the use of Augmented Reality technology the imaginary city of Ararat which was never built, is superimposed onto the real landscape of Grand Island (Kaplan 239-240).  Among the different elements of the project, one central feature is, the Augmented Reality walking tour would consist of 25 points of interest each, of which will have an audio file with information.  In this project Augmented Reality is used to create a new form of virtual tourism.  The Layar software application used, allows for virtual photography- users can pose with the augmented objects which are superimposed in the real environment while using their mobile phones (Kaplan 245).  Mapping Ararat differs from ARCHEOGUIDE and other similar projects as it does not reconstruct events or settlements that actually existed, as Mordecai Noah’s Ararat actually never came to life (Kaplan 247).  In addition, unlike ARCHEOGUIDE, it does not employ a HMD, but only a smartphone.

The reconstruction and visualisation of historical buildings can be used in the urban landscape as well.  LifeClipper is an open air Augmented Reality project which offers audio-visual tours of historic parts of Basel, in Switzerland.  Through Augmented Reality technology (HMD and wearable computing units) users can immerse themselves in the medieval St. Alban Quarter in Basel.  In addition to 3D reconstructions of streets and buildings, virtual characters wearing medieval clothes inhabit the augmented reality.  This project also uses sounds, which are augmented into the visitor’s surroundings and change according to his/her location.  All these different elements enhance the visitor’s experience even further.  This project has some technical problems mainly associated with the technology used, like system delay from the HMD and a low resolution of the images (Mohamed-Amin 135-136).

An interesting project which creates the illusion of handling museum artefacts was carried out in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  Different prototypes were created by an inter-disciplinary team for the virtual handling of artefacts.  Both prototypes were based on the same theatrical visual illusion (Pepper’s Ghost) but each of them used different media.  The first prototype used non-digital media, a 3D printed replica of the real artefact, and the second one – a haptic device.  The glass of the museum case itself was used in both prototypes for focusing the user’s attention and creating the illusion of touching the real object (Dima et al. 4-5).  In both cases Haptic AR was employed to enhance the visitor’s experience through their “handling” of the ancient artefact.  The survey which was conducted of the visitors’ experiences confirmed that the users enjoyed the handling of the artefact and that they preferred the first prototype which employed the 3D replica of the original artefact to the one with the haptic device (Dima et al. 10).  The virtual handling of the object, the combination of sensory and visual cues, increased the authenticity of the visitor’s experience, especially in the case of the first prototype where the visitors did not have to use digital media directly (Dima et al. 11).  The use of multimodal exploration of objects that cannot be handled in museum environments has substantial educational and economic benefits for museums and other educational institutions.  In Haptic Augmented Reality applications, not the technology, but the artefact is the focus of the visitor’s attention, making their museum experience more enjoyable and authentic.

The MagicBook project is an example of an Augmented Reality application which uses a real book interface and superimposes 3D virtual models on the real book’s pages to create an Augmented Reality scene.  The virtual objects are animated and can be seen appearing out of the real pages when the book is looked at through an Augmented Reality display (Bellinghurst et al. 3).  MagicBook was used as a generic platform for different projects, for example World War One History Book, a Japanese children’s treasure hunt story among others.  It can also be used for scientific visualisation, architectural, business and medical applications, and for games and entertainment (Bellinghurst et al. 7-8).  The benefit of this Augmented Reality technology is that it uses a tangible real object (the book) as an interface and blurs the line between Virtual Reality and Reality (Bellinghurst et al. 12).

A similar project Tangible Pasts also uses a real book as a tangible interface and combines it with 3D models and animations, enabling the users to experience two prehistoric Minoan archaeological sites (Chrysanthi et al. 32).  The project received positive feedback in relation to the interactivity, the tangibility of the interface, and the fact that the prototype was not entirely computerised (Chrysanthi 35).  In order to overcome some technical and functional shortcomings, a second prototype was designed which included some new features such as sound (narration and natural sounds from the various features) and video information.  The addition of multimedia to the content proved to enhance the sensory engagement of the users with the information provided (Chrysanthi et al. 37).  Although both projects proved to have some technical challenges, the overall benefit of the usage of Augmented Reality technologies for presenting archaeological and other content through multimodal and interactive platforms seems obvious.  The ease of use, the tangible interface and the seamless transition from reality to Virtual Reality and back, enhance the user’s experience and facilitate the presentation of information in a user-friendly way.

Another beneficial application of Augmented Reality technology can be observed in the field of Archaeology.  ARAC Maps (Augmented Reality for Archaeological Content) is a mobile application which uses mobile devices with Android operational systems to augment paper maps with 3D models which can be used in museum presentations of archaeological material and also supports the archaeological work on an excavation site (Eggert 203).  While a lot of the projects employing Augmented Reality technologies focus on the presentation of archaeological information to visitors of museums and archaeological sites, only a few explore the use of Augmented Reality as a tool for archaeologists in the field (Eggert 205).  As the excavation process is destructive in itself to the site, accurate recording of the excavated layers and artefacts for later reconstruction is of the utmost importance.  The use of ARAC Maps allows the expert users to place geo-referenced annotations which are augmented on top of the paper map and also used to generate and manipulate a grid-based roman street network without handling the original maps in a physical way (Eggert 2015).  The annotation function can be helpful in the documentation during the excavation stage while the generative street function can aid archaeologists in their assumption where certain structures can be found and therefore enable them to localise the next excavation while on site.  The ARAC Maps mobile application further enables the archaeologist to handle the created grid by the manipulation of the size and orientation, through multi-touch gestures (Eggert 211).

Another project exploring the possibilities of Augmented Reality technology in the field for answering archaeological research questions is documented by Stuart Eve who carried out an experiment at a section of Hadrian’s Wall, where the Peel Gap Turret is missing.  The project involved a video camera which could be pointed at the Wall.  The application used the live camera feed and overlaid a 3D reconstructed model of the turret onto the video feed (Eve 16).  In addition a GPS receiver could localise the user and sounds were played which were dependent on the user’s location (Eve 17).  This project explored the possibilities where Augmented Reality applications present, not only for the visitor’s benefit but also for expert users.  Augmented Reality technology allows for the exploration and experimentation which is not possible with physical reconstructions and can aid the phenomenological study in the field (Eve 18).  This combination of real-life elements and computer-based reconstructions can result in more comprehensive interpretations of archaeological sites.

In recent years Cultural Heritage experts have started to pay attention of the use of the state-of-the-art gaming technology for educational purposes and for enhancing the experiences of visitors to museums and cultural heritage sites alike.  The gaming industry has been a leading light in terms of game related technology.  Gaming technology has evolved to such an extent; that areas like virtual and augmented reality, real-time computer graphics and artificial intelligence has caught the interest of the cultural heritage sector (Anderson et al. 1).  There are highly successful entertainment games such as Civilization that are ahistorical and lack historical context, but just stop short of being educational.  Gaming technology has also been used to create virtual educational games such as Virtual Egyptian Temple, Rome Reborn and many others, which have been coined “serious games” because they are not only for providing entertainment and fun but rather an educational platform which is used for learning.  The entertainment technology and the serious games technology have identical frameworks, that both use the core technologies of computer games.  The only difference being that the serious gaming output is pedagogical in nature, whereas the entertainment technology is purely leisure focused (Anderson et al. 3).

The benefit of serious gaming technologies is that they create 3D spaces that are collaborative, communicative, visually expressive, and interactive and as such are ideal mediums for scholastic purposes.  The Augmented Reality technology is even more superior to Virtual Reality technology, as it is a view of the real world environment augmented with elements such as sound, GPS data, and graphics.  There are real-time computer graphics which are very close to photorealism and offer the user a very rich experience.  A really good example of this is the game “Pokemon Go”, which is a location-based Augmented Reality game that has some educational elements, and even some cultural heritage content.

Augmented Reality has the advantage of becoming a low-cost solution in relation to education, as you do not have to invest in physical materials as a teaching aid.  The students can access Augmented Reality sites on any mobile or static device at any time or anywhere.  It is also ideal for guiding in museums and cultural heritage sites.  In Italy, a game was created called M-learning, with the purpose of providing realistic 3D representations of historical monuments.  This game can be played using a mobile device with restricted RAM memory, making it ideal for students.  These historical games stimulate students, thus making it fun to learn and helping the students retain this information, which would otherwise be forgotten (Ardito et al. 1).  Zyda as cited by Anderson et al, further supports the idea “that a serious game that is not ‘fun’ to play would be useless” (Anderson et al. 3).

On perusal of the various applications of Augmented Reality technologies for the benefit of Cultural Heritage institutions and sites, as well as in the field of Archaeology, it becomes obvious that Augmented Reality applications have enormous potential for enhancing the visitor’s experience and aiding the experts in their archaeological work.  Augmented Reality applications have some technical and functional shortcomings which can be overcome in the future, through the development of new technologies and user-friendly interfaces.  All the experiments and surveys of Augmented Reality technologies prove that tangible interfaces and multimodal approaches are much more beneficial when presenting information in museums and other cultural heritage institutions.  Overall Augmented Reality applications have enormous potential for enhanced representation of historical and archaeological data through real time and spatially localised visual reconstructions.  The interactivity feature and the combination of real world elements with digital objects make Augmented Reality technologies superior to Virtual Reality and other multimedia technologies as an instrument for disseminating cultural heritage data for education, leisure and academic research purposes.

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