What Lies Beyond Museums?

India has had a long and complex history, traversing the Indus Valley Civilisation to years leading to the democratic Republic of India. We feel the effects of our turbulent history even today. Where is it possible to see such diversity? Not only in its people, but in the objects we see and the sounds we hear. We live amidst beautiful and symbiotic chaos, packed with surprises.

Everything around us is a part of our culture and heritage. Not restricted to objects and architecture, but also spanning the sounds, smells and flavours of every locality. These elements are linked to time, and as time forges ahead, technological advancements leave their mark, leading to an evolution of our surroundings. And perhaps, inevitably — we will lose some elements of our culture.

One might ask, isn’t this why we have museums, and other institutions dedicated to preserving history? Indeed they are guardians of past knowledge, but they also come with some limitations. Museums require the viewer to be physically present to see objects of the past. As cliche as it might sound, innovations in digital technology add an extra dimension to heritage conservation — that of interactivity, engagement and storytelling, which is missing in museums.

For some time now, the process of archiving and exhibiting objects has been a tedious and physical process. Advances in technology can change this. By supporting digital heritage, as well as our physical heritage, we can use the full potential of computers to analyse objects and learn more about them than was ever possible before.

An example of an initiative made towards digitally archiving heritage, is a project led by the Government Department of Science and Technology, which supports researchers in technology and humanities, to digitally document the landscape of Hampi, Karnataka. (digitalhampi.in). Immersive technologies like Virtual Reality, supported by game engines and techniques of photogrammetry push possibilities in heritage conservation, taking it a step ahead of digital archiving.

A Brief History Of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is a technology we’ve had a love-hate relationship with for some time now. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland made the first prototype of a VR headset. Progress continued at a very slow rate right through the early 2000’s, with advancements in technology not being able to keep up with what was needed to make Virtual Reality feel truly immersive. In 2012, Oculus launched the Rift. It was the right product at the right price that revived the excitement of VR. It then proceeded to spark off an arms race in the world of VR, with manufacturers and software giants trying to outdo each other in their efforts to create high quality, yet accessible VR.

The worlds we construct in VR can be infinitely imaginative. In many ways, this is as close to cognitive art as mediums can get. VR worlds are a lot like dreams, we can imagine anything we like and jump in whenever we wish to. Earlier, VR needed powerful hardware to ensure high quality immersive experiences. Now, with mobile VR, which can run on smartphones, that is changing.

The Power of Game Engines

Game engines are easy to use software that allow us to create worlds to experience in VR. Previously an exclusive domain of experts, the democratisation of this technology allows even novices to begin creating. To build these VR worlds, 3D models and supporting assets are needed. Creating 3D models using traditional methods often takes a lot of time and is resource intensive. But a method once used for mapping during wartime, known as ‘Photogrammetry’ can be used to produce detailed and accurate 3D models. Photogrammetry is the craft of ascertaining measurement information between objects from photos. All you need are pictures of an object and a software that will process the pictures to generate 3D models!

Putting all of the above together, a process is formed — Document artifacts with photogrammetry, create worlds with game engines, experience the same with VR and circulate to anyone with a smartphone. Last I checked, more than 300 million smartphones were sold in India alone. The components for digital heritage are ready, we just have to connect the dots.

What separates digital heritage from traditional methods of heritage conservation, is not just the ability to shift everything into the digital world, but also the creative freedom to craft stories and narratives to the way in which we interact with history. This is what will make interactive VR experiences meaningful and educative in an effective and playful manner. The digital nature of the medium makes it a very fluid one; stories can be adapted for various languages and places to enhance its accessibility.