I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Bernard Frischer, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Informatics. A pioneer in the relatively new academic field of “virtual heritage,” he started Rome Reborn more than three decades ago.
What’s “Rome Reborn,” you ask? It’s a long-term effort to digitally reconstruct ancient Rome in a way that allows people to freely explore the entire city as it more or less existed nearly two millennia ago. To do this, Frischer has followed the progress of various technologies over several years and enlisted dozens of academic and technical specialists in support of the cause.
The work of Frischer and his colleagues, which is still going strong, has a few important implications for professionals in the museum space. These are:
1. The Rise of Virtual Heritage
This might be a new academic field, but it’s a fast-growing one. Virtual heritage already has two charters: London and Seville [Spain]. In any case, according to Frischer, virtual heritage centers on developing realistic replications of environments from the distant past. But this goes far beyond design, and into crafting educational narratives and creating places that can be explored in a million different ways.
For Rome Reborn, Frischer is working with a company called Smart History to establish a variety of nodes — virtual monuments, geographic features, people on the street, etc. — that allow users to get additional information in real time as they “travel” around the city.
“We’re not doing it to create a ghost town,” he told me. “We’re populating the Rome Reborn world with their commentary.”
2. The Power of “Simpiricism”
As Frischer explained, creating a holistic, historically accurate digital environment is a relatively new concept. Archaeologists and their teams typically focus on a single monument or site, but don’t apply their methods to an entire city or region.
With Rome Reborn, the team is integrating a wide variety of deep archaeological information on buildings. This provides value not only as an educational tool, but also for “simpiricism.” Frischer coined this term, a combination of simulation and empiricism, to describe how virtual heritage at its best reveals new insights about life in the past that range from urban planning to the arts.
For museums that include historical and archaeological research in their mission, simpiricism could offer an exciting way to break new ground — virtually speaking, of course.
3. The Democratization of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) technology was once the province of organizations with tons of resources at their disposal, such as the armed forces or auto manufacturers. No more. Today, it’s less expensive and more accessible than ever.
But like the Roman gladius, this trend is a double-edged sword for museums. On one hand, VR technology makes it easier than ever for museums of varying sizes to create sophisticated, multifaceted simulated environments. However, as Frischer points out, companies like Oculus Rift are making it easier for individuals to access these kinds of experiences from the comfort of their own home. And though many museum directors might see Rome Reborn as a virtual exhibit, he ultimately views it as an educational tool that could be in millions of households one day.