The Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO): An Immersive Experience of the Ancient Greek Oracle at Dodona

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


The aim of this project is to use VR to recreate an approximation of the historical experiences (mental and somatic) of individuals consulting the ancient oracle of Zeus at Dodona and then, through user analysis, to investigate how such a recreation can help to advance understanding of (i) an ancient historical context and individual historical experiences of that context; and (ii) the design and deployment of multi-sensory VR experiences for research and educational purposes. This will be achieved by building a VR recreation of the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus and Dione at Dodona (the VRO). The VRO will, on the one hand, address questions of subjective historical experience by creating a convincing reality that will then enable the detailed exploration of the process, experience and effects of ancient oracular consultation; and, on the other hand, facilitate further research into the design of VR technologies for communication of historical experience, including both museums and classroom settings.

The VRO will recreate the experience of consulting the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus and Dione at Dodona in NW Greece during the Classical period. A broad constituency of ancient society visited this oracle: evidence shows that Dodona was consulted not only by community leaders, but also by ordinary men, women, and even slaves. This will enable the project to encompass a diverse range of ancient experiences. Moreover, the site has yielded thousands of lead tablets inscribed with questions that visitors posed to the oracle-remarkable documents for the ancient world. They show the everyday anxieties that prompted people to consult the gods, about, for example, travel, business and relationships. Alongside the question tablets, the ancient sources offer myriad possibilities for how the oracle worked, some focusing on Dodona's sacred oak tree, others on the priests and priestesses at the site.

This project will explore--and aim to recreate--the diverse experiences of consulting Dodona, by commissioning and working with a VR company to develop a virtual reality oracle (VRO). Using the question tablets found at the site, and informed by specialists in ancient Greek religion and divination, with further support from the Ephorate of Ioannina (near ancient Dodona), the VRO experience will be built around a set of stories about ancient individuals. It will evoke different contexts and subjective experiences of uncertainty and explore the various possible methods of consulting the oracle, helping historians to better understand and differentiate among these mechanisms. The design phase of the VRO will also be informed by the participation of teachers, students and museum/cultural heritage curators, who will help to ensure that the VRO excels in communicating information to different user groups.

In the second half of the project, the project will investigate user responses to the VRO both qualitatively and experimentally. This will enhance the project's ancient historical research into the experience of ancient oracular consultation: analysis of user responses by psychologists and neuroscientists will allow the project team to gauge the sensory and cognitive affects of oracular consultation, and to differentiate between different possible modes of divination. User analysis will also be used to examine how VR may be designed and deployed effectively for educational uses in classrooms and museums. Once the VRO is constructed, analysis of users of the VRO by psychologists and experts in human-computer interaction will be used to better understand the role of all the senses in a successful immersive experience, and to establish effective design parameters for immersive VR environments.

Planned Impact

This project has identified three main strands of impact, each of which will reach a variety of stakeholders, generating economic, social and cultural benefits. These are listed below, first by describing the kind of impact, then by listing the sectors that will benefit:

1. How: By providing innovative content to industry, public sector organisations, education and the public: The innovative product will provide cutting-edge, but affordable, content and resources for use in both museum and educational settings, which is also accessible for use by the general public through the project website.

- Who will benefit: specific VR company. The commissioning of the VRO will provide an SME with the opportunity to work in an innovative and creative direction, without the usual constraints of a commercial contract. We will give them the license to show this work as they choose, which will lead to its dissemination in both industry-specific and public contexts (e.g., as part of a show-reel or at public-facing festivals).

- Who will benefit: museum sector. Specific beneficiaries will include Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, We the Curious, Bristol, and Ioannina Museum in Greece. Kings College London's Culture Team will also display the VRO in a public display space on the Strand campus. These displays will increase cultural and knowledge capital for users, and we also expect there to be economic benefits for some of these organisations, since it will lead to increases in visitor numbers.

- Who will benefit: educational sector. The VRO will provide a resource for teaching about the ancient world, for all courses that concern ancient cultures, in particular ancient religion. It will be particularly relevant to the OCR A-level Ancient History course, which asks students to learn about the experience of consulting the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. But it will also be useful for teaching in other disciplines that consider ritual, divination, questions concerned with living with uncertainty, and future studies, such as anthropology or area studies.

2. How: By enhancing the knowledge and creative economies:
- Who will benefit: the VR and immersive content industries. By demonstrating the development, production and use of VR for an educational purpose, the project will also have broader impacts both for the VR and immersive content industry, and for related creative and cultural industries. Not only will it provide an example of the use of VR/Immersive technology for educational use, it will also inform best practice, as a demonstration of an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral project that brings together a range of stakeholders to develop creative educational VR products.

- Who will benefit: the UK economy. Such developments in the creative industries will also lead to the fostering of the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom.

3. How: By increasing public knowledge and understanding of i) ancient and modern cultures; ii) immersive technologies.

- Who will benefit: members of the wider public with an interest in ancient history and culture, especially religion, divination and other rituals will be able to learn more both about the oracle at Dodona and more broadly about these larger themes concerning the content of the VRO. This information will be available both through the museum displays and the project website, and will be enhanced with public-facing events, including public lectures, talks at festivals, blog postings and related activities with the industry partner on this project.

- Who will benefit: members of the wider public with an interest in immersive technologies. As part of the displays and on the website, the project will provide information about the production of the VRO, the psychological and neuroscientific aspects of its design, and industry practice.


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