Use VR to rebuild heritage

Would VR be an answer to Italy’s woes?

Recent earthquakes have badly affected some regions of Italy that are among the richest in the world on history and art.  Aside from the terrible personal consequences, the job of rebuilding so much heritage is daunting to say the least.  Much of this heritage has been reduced to dust, so for the most part it won’t be restoration, but total reconstruction.  Despite political demagoguery it is unthinkable that absolutely everything will be restored just as it was before the earthquake and even simply reconstructing the main fabric of major buildings would require decades of costly and intensive activity.equakechurch

In the meantime, the areas affected by the quake are likely to be further deprived economically by the loss of revenue generated by tourism.  But some of its original tourist appeal could be regenerated quite quickly.   Agriculture and animal husbandry will continue, so food production should quickly return to normal.   Functional dwellings can also be put up fairly rapidly and the visually appealing unique landscape (landmark buildings aside) will continue to exist.   Smells, sounds, taste and people make up for much of a tourist’s experience, but what to do about those destroyed monuments?

Here I believe, modern technology could help.  In their scholarly article Williams and Hobson talk about VR’s potential for tourism, while at the same time saying that uptake in that field would be ‘slow’.  Note that was back in 1995! In that respect Daniel A. Guttentag provides a much more contemporary overview, particularly in relation to Heritage Preservation.   Both papers (and there is much more on this topic around) talk comprehensively about the overall experience and the risk that just total immersion in VR might never provide a suitable alternative to a holistic tourist experience. So VR and tourism have a long history already, but this isn’t the point I am making here.

We often think of technological innovation as a one stop solution yet we all know that each innovation provides us with an opportunity to develop and evolve existing processes, rather than supplanting everything that was there before.  So, for example, though we may use emails to communicate, we are still likely to get a handwritten post-it note to stick a few thoughts on a board or book.  Therefore, my simple suggestion is that in the context of the Italian circumstances we shouldn’t look at VR as providing a definitive single stop solution, but as an interim measure to enhance visitors’ experience in the midst of an otherwise highly complex and changing situation.

Google streetview (outside the Coliseum, in Rome) as seen through some VR Goggles

Google streetview (outside the Coliseum, in Rome) as seen through some VR Goggles

Let’s take the example of the destroyed Basilica in Norcia.  Once basic clearing work had started and the locality was made safe, with some essential services also up and running, a tourist could reach the town and don a set of VR goggles.  Once on the main piazza they could step through the still standing facade and then into the area occupied by the old basilica, seeing it as it was before the quake. Just like other technologies VR is also evolving and even more immersive experiences could be achieved. For example, a visitor could be made to touch and feel surfaces that were there before and that might not have been within reach either.   In the words of Marco Faccini, an executive from Immerse that specialises in these matters, “Virtual reality can be the new reality.”  Clearly this is a simplistic example, but the implications of utilising this technology could throw a lifeline to the economies of areas impacted by natural disasters.

Obviously, VR heritage assumes that buildings and monuments have been surveyed and photographed in detail to provide a realistic immersive experience (though clever CGI can also help) and this raises the inevitable question of making sure that we do keep detailed image recording of every building at risk.  But photographing and surveying is still an essential part of restoring and reconstructing and one that is much less costly too. Sadly too much resources are often spent remediating after a natural disaster than in prevention, but this is another story.