Sensations of Roman life: Reconstructing and experiencing a multi-sensory virtual reality environment.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Built Enviroment

Abstract

Roman Britain forms an important part of UK cultural heritage, strongly represented in teaching and museums. However, public perceptions of Roman life are coloured by an emphasis on the gory, glamorous and monumental, creating a skewed impression of the Romans and rendering them a distant society, remote from our lives today. The Sensations of Roman Life project seeks to offer limited redress to this perception by demonstrating in an exciting and innovative way what everyday domestic life was like for a Romano-Briton.

We will use gaming technology to create an immersive 3D virtual reality model (VRM) of a specific Roman town house and neighbourhood, including not only the architectural elements but also sounds and smells that would have been familiar to the occupants. Information to allow us to create this VRM will come from a combination of excavation records of Insula IX, House I, in the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester, near Reading), and classical texts describing the sights, sounds and smells of Roman life. Using the same data, we will also create an Interactive Sensory Map (ISM) that will graphically represent (with colours and concentric lines) the intensity and dispersal of sounds and smells through and around House I. This will be produced by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which overlays different forms of data onto a common map (in our case the neighbourhood of Insula IX), allowing the user to vary elements such as wind direction, time of day, open/closed windows etc.

This is important and relevant research because the use of these technologies is becoming more widespread in the design and representation of the built environment. At the School of Construction Management and Engineering, Reading (SCME), we have a track record of using immersive Virtual Reality to collaborate with construction professionals, recently for example in the design of a hospital. Without sounds and smells in these representations, we get a false impression of the effects of entering that space (e.g. hospital smells are highly evocative). Tools such as the ISM also open up the possibility for designing sounds and smells into a building, to assist with direction-finding for instance. At present such tools are not available in the construction sector.

Furthermore, our understanding of the past is primarily coloured by material remains. Sounds and smells form little part of the archaeologist's toolkit, so that excavations inherently focus on those places where activities have left the greatest trace. Excavation strategies and subsequent explanations therefore do not adequately account for issues such as quietness, or disgusting smells. This research will interrogate our understanding of the past by offering a multi-sensory representation of disappeared environments. In doing so we will specifically aim to counter the public misunderstanding of the Roman world as one dominated by military might or imperial glory, and instead show that life was interesting in noisy, smelly ways.

Having gathered archaeological and textual data, identified key sounds and smells, and established the architecture of House I, we will create our VRM in a gaming engine, and our ISM in a GIS map and demonstrate them at Chedworth Roman Villa. We expect several hundred visitors to experience the models over a two week period, including schools and knowledgeable scholars, giving our research maximum exposure and satisfying our aim to promote greater public understanding of everyday Roman life. There will then be two public lectures at Chedworth to explain in more detail the methods and findings of the research project. We will also arrange a presentation to senior figures in the construction sector, drawing on the extensive contacts in SCME, where we will demonstrate the potential for the multi-sensory approach in designing the future built environment, and discuss knowledge exchange activities to develop these models into useful design tools.

Planned Impact

The Sensations of Roman Life project will have two key non-academic beneficiaries. The first is those involved in activities related to the display and teaching of Roman life, and the second is designers and users of new buildings, especially large public buildings.

Roman Britain forms an important part of our cultural heritage and is strongly represented in schools, museums, and sites with standing remains. However, public perceptions of Roman life are coloured by an emphasis on the glamorous and monumental, creating a skewed impression of the Romans and rendering them a distant society, remote from our lives today. Institutions such as the National Trust are attempting to re-balance this by demonstrating Roman craftsmanship and displaying a wide range of Roman objects set within the context of their everyday use. By choosing as our case study a relatively ordinary Roman town-house we will be able to bring to the fore the Roman sensations of everyday life, making this accessible to a modern audience.

We have partnered with the National Trust at Chedworth Roman Villa to demonstrate the Virtual Reality multi-sensory model (VRM) to their visiting publics, which will help in our efforts to change public perceptions of the ancient world. Chedworth have a good flow of school groups, who they suggest will be particularly impressed with this type of game-based technology, and we expect the teachers will be influenced by this novel portrayal of Roman life in their future teaching practices. As well as the exhibition at Chedworth, manned by IE for a two week period, there will also be two public lectures there intended to give a more detailed description of the methods and outputs of the project. This will be promoted by Chedworth to their supporters, volunteers and regular visitors, and by the project investigators through our contacts in the archaeological community, including a large number of regional societies populated with enthusiastic members of the public and knowledgeable amateur scholars. We will also use extensive personal contacts in the museum world to invite attendance at the lectures and/or the demonstrations, where the idea of a virtual representation of a specific environment will encourage ideas for future exhibitions in other institutions.

The construction sector has been experimenting with the use of immersive models for many years, with several design and visualisation projects carried out at Reading, met with an enthusiastic response. This has two primary benefits: first, it allows the design of a building to be examined and changed prior to physical construction, and second it gives a platform for lay-people to engage with the design team. This project will expand on those benefits and allow a more informed approach to the design process. For example, in designing a new hospital ward, architects and clinicians attended a joint demonstration of a visual Virtual Reality Model (VRM) for a discussion about sightlines to patient beds. This could now be expanded to include a model of the flow of sounds and smells through the ward, experienced with a degree of realism in the VRM, and simulated through the Interactive Sensory Map (ISM), allowing changes such as closing a door and opening a window. This type of modelling is not currently available, and while the ISM produced in this project will be simple, it will demonstrate the principle, and offer an additional tool for designers, builders and users of environments, for instance in designing multi-sensory path-finding. IE will organise an industry demonstration, using the contacts at SCME to bring in a range of influential construction industry professionals to experience the tools we develop. Our experience of the use of Virtual Reality modelling to date suggests that use in architecture and construction is set to expand, and new tools that assist in designing buildings will be enthusiastically welcomed, and likely to be part of future design processes.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Virtual reality environments are enhanced by the addition of extra sensory stimuli - in this case sounds and smells. Whether this makes them more 'realistic' is uncertain.
Exploitation Route Exhibitions / museums enhancing their presentations. Architectural designers taking account of the sounds and smells in new buildings
Sectors Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description An exhibition at Fishbourne Roman Palace demonstrated the use of multi-sensory VR environment and the context of 'normal' Roman life, as opposed to the life portrayed in the Palace. Visitor numbers were around 1400 including many school teachers and children, who spoke of their surprise at the life we showed.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership
Amount £68,648 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/P003982/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 04/2020
 
Description BBC Radio Berkshire interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview with local radio, discussing multi-sensory VR experience being exhibited at Fishbourne Roman Palace
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description BBC Radio Sussex interviews 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Local Radio interview discussing multi-sensory VR experience being exhibited at Fishbourne Roman Palace
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description BBC South Today TV Feature 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 90 second feature describing the work using VR as a tool to describe spaces to the general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Multi Sensory Extravaganza 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A multi-sensory extravaganza, mixing a range of artists and performers with academic talks. The participants included, a sound artist, a group of weavers, a chef of roman food, a loop artist (digital musician), a belly dancer, a smell artist, the VR multi-sensory display form the project, and 3 renowned academic speakers. The event was held in the University of Reading and advertised to the general public and the student population, with around 120 visitors during the day. It raised awareness of the purposes of the research in suggesting ways we can incorporate the senses into the design of the built environment. It opened up the possibility of collaborations between the academic participants, and generated interest in the University generally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Museum presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 40 members of staff and volunteers at the Museum of English Rural Life attended a presentation and demonstration of a Virtual Reality model of their new building. There were discussions about other uses for the model, including disabled group visits, which will be considered in the near future at MERL.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description School visit (Reading) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The researchers brought a virtual reality demonstration model to a local school with members of the Museum of English Rural Life. We brought along several objects that were also in the VR model. The visit was reported on the school website. Students and staff members engaged in a discussion about virtual reality, and plans were made to develop links between the school and the university, through school visits to the university VR capabilities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://theabbey.co.uk/news/senior-school/upper-iii-explore-virtual-merl
 
Description VR public demonstration at Fishbourne 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact One week demonstration of VR at Fishbourne Roman Palace during their half-term week.
Average attandance increased as a result of the publicity for the event, expected 1000 attendees, achieved 1400
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016