Virtual History

Ian Fitzgerald takes a look at virtual reality history sites.

Elvis is alive - well virtually. He was spotted on screen at the second annual Virtual Heritage conference in London last December, Along with Plato, Marilyn Monroe and troops from the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese Emperor, 'The King' was there to demonstrate the abilities of Virtual Reality programs to bring to life people and places from almost any era While VR is used mainly in technical fields – medical research, architecture, design – its applications for history and heritage groups look promising.

Professor Nadia Thalmann runs Miralab, a VR research centre at Geneva University. Her working days are spent on cutting-edge projects like parallel computing and medical 'informatics', but at night she and her students turn to a personal project that has become a labour of love – the digital reconstruction of the Terracotta Army. Working from sketches, photographs and plans, they are attempting to reproduce a group of the 2,000 year-old figures in exact three-dimensional replica.

On screen, the figures look impressively and aggressively realistic. Working like a sculptor, the VR designer models each figure through the careful manipulation of a spider's web of vertices. As the face takes shape, flesh tones, hair and colour are all 'painted' in. ' Professor Thalmann's eventual aim is to produce a VR film about the emperor and his army. This involves inventing dramatic scenes and episodes, something purists may take issue with. But Professor Thalmann argues that VR designers are artists not artisans. 'We are imagining objects not just displaying them', she says. 'We are creating scenarios and portraying emotions and acts'. Scenes from the film will be available on the Internet by the end of 1997, when interested parties will be able to judge for themselves.

Nevertheless, the practical benefits are obvious, allowing the viewer to visit sites inaccessible through distance, time or prohibition. And for gadget buffs there are a whole range of electronic tools that make the VR experience as 'real' as possible. The VR helmet is perhaps the technology's most famous product. It allows the viewer to 'enter' the image on screen and wander at will among its objects. 3-D glasses are another alternative. The experience they offer is less intense, but the effect they have on a Terracotta ' warrior – whose grimacing face: leaps off the screen at the startled viewer – is no less impressive.

But these spectacular devices are a small part of the VR world. The main focus is on recreating, in detail, objects and persons on screen and in 3-D. One manufacturer, Superscape, produce their own DIY Virtual Reality software for users, such as museums and galleries, to create their own sites and stage historic scenes in three fully- interactive dimensions – so the prospect of unwary visitors to York’s Jorvik Museum being ravished by Virtual Vikings may not be far off. In fact, in 1998, Bradford's National Museum of Photography and Television will open a new £13 million extension, including a VR gallery.

For technophobes, Superscape have a Projects and Consultancy Team to help users design sites. An example currently visible on the internet ( is Virtual Stonehenge, produced with English Heritage. It looks at the monument today and charts its progress through the millennia. Thanks to Virtual Reality, viewers can wander freely around Stonehenge, something few people can do in real life.

One of the most ambitious undertakings on show was Infobyte's reconstruction of the Colosseum. Using powerful Onyx processors the size of filing cabinets, the Rome-based company is producing a practically faultless representation of the now- crumbling monument. For Fabrizio Funto, Infobyte's General Manager, VR is an important heritage tool as 'it can be used for conservation and restoration. On fragile objects or sensitive sites you can leave the original alone and reconstruct it virtually.

Infobyte are also recreating Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican's Papal Chambers. As these paintings are in private rooms, Infobyte's representations of the School of Athens and other works are the closest many of us will get to the real thing, if not closer VR allows the viewer to 'fly' around sites. Viewers can see, for example, the Sistine Chapel ceiling as Michelangelo saw it, face to face, or can levitate above the altar at Stonehenge – a hippy dream come true.

The technology is such that the images increase in definition as viewers zoom in on them, unlike, say, video technology, where the image degrades with size. A whole range of cultural bodies can benefit from this researchers, museums and galleries displaying artworks or delicate artefacts in digital form, and restorers wishing to examine works in intense detail But there are commercial as well as cultural benefits Gwyn Headley of Pavilions of Splendour, the estate agents specialising in listed buildings and historic homes which co sponsored the conference, explains 'we eventually want to put our properties up on a VR website, so that potential buyers can look at their next home from the comfort of their existing one, perhaps technology's first example of Virtual Reality.