Walking through History: Virtual Reality as an Education Tool (Print Project Proposal)

Visiting a historic location, whether it’s a city full of history or the ruins of an ancient wonder, is a means by which people can truly immerse themselves in the history that lays there. Standing among the preserved ruins of the Colosseum can invoke images of gladiatorial combat and other public spectacles, while walking around sites such as Stonehenge fill visitors with a sense of mystery. Making historical sites accessible to the public serves a similar purpose to displaying collections in a museum. The ability to walk among history and see what was used in the past helps visitors imagine, almost see, what life was like for people living in the past. But there are limitations on this. Preservation of the items and locations is vital, and that sometimes means taking it away from the public. Artifacts can be stowed away for research purposes only, and historic sites can be blocked off to public access to prevent damage. But recent technological innovations and popular mediums could provide potential solutions. An alternative that could help preserve artifacts and locations, while still allowing people to visit and interact with relics of the past could lie in virtual reality.

For this project, I would like to look at how virtual reality and video games could be utilized to recreate historic sites and artifacts and make them more accessible to the public. For this I would have to look at how these mediums have been implemented already. Virtual Reality for example has become a tool utilized in art museums in a number of interesting ways. Some have put their galleries up for viewing in virtual reality, so that one can see the rooms without even being there. Other museums offer experiences within the galleries where virtual reality allows a visitor to go into a painting and explore the works of art from entirely new perspectives. For example, The Louvre launched a virtual reality experience in October 2019 called “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass” that not only allowed visitors to get a closer than ever look at the details of the painting itself, but also used data available to recreate the setting in which the painting was originally created, allowing viewers to see the “real life” Mona Lisa. This kind of recreation could be expanded upon for more historical works and sites.

            Video games and history don’t often mesh well together. Even in games based in historical settings, game design by its nature tends to take what could be describe as far more than its fair share of artistic liberties. But one innovation that video games have done very well in terms of historical settings is mapping and recreating historical landmarks. Many games have recreated landmarks and locations, but perhaps the most innovative of late has been the work of developer Ubisoft who make the historically-set Assassin’s Creed series. While the history within the games themselves is riddled with inaccuracies, their recreation of historic cities and landmarks has been widely praised. They most recently caught attention for their recreations in April of 2019 when, after the devastating fire to the Notre Dame Cathedral, they volunteered their digital mapping of the cathedral from a previous game to assist with the rebuilding efforts. The company has also tried their hand at making their games more educational with their most recent entries in the series set in Ptolemaic Egypt and Classical Greece. Within these games, Ubisoft added an option called “Discovery Tour” which allowed players to turn off the violence and story and simply explore the recreated ancient world and learn about life and locations during these times and read the information that the developers had access to while creating these games, while also learning about what the developers changed to suit their game.

            For this project I hope to see how this groundbreaking technology could be utilized to offer those interested an opportunity to see not only some of the world’s most famous landmarks and artifacts, but to interact with them in a way that museums and landmarks simply can’t allow one to do. I hope to explore how this technology is currently being used and how it could be expanded to help students and the curious learn more about different topics or how researchers could use this technology to aid in their research while helping to preserve artifacts, documents, and historic sites.

One Reply to “Walking through History: Virtual Reality as an Education Tool (Print Project Proposal)”

  1. Exploring virtual reality and video games as contexts for immersive experiences for history is a great idea. My first thought is that if you do go ahead with this as a project that it would likely be better to focus on either video games or on virtual reality. At this point, there is enough historical work happening in both categories that you would have plenty to work from in either case.

    If you do get into the video games context, I would encourage you to look at essays in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History and Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. If you focus on VR, I would suggest checking out the book The Virtual Representation of the Past and many of the books and articles that have subsequently cited it. In any event, if you check out those books and skim through the essays in them I have no doubt you would have a good bit of context to then delve into a specific research project around these topics.

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