There are no barriers in the virtual reality experience of the catacombs when compared to the physical barriers on site. Photos: St Martin’s Institute of Higher Education
If you have ever been to St Paul’s catacombs you know several chambers are out of bounds, whether for conservation reasons or because they cannot be reached.
For others with accessibility difficulties or claustrophobia issues, a trip to the subterranean cemetery in Rabat could be completely out of the question.
Lecturers at St Martin’s Institute of Higher Education have, therefore, come up with a solution: using virtual reality to enhance everyone’s experience, irrespective of whether one can or cannot visit heritage sites.
By putting on a virtual reality headset, which looks like a pair of snorkelling goggles, you can set foot in or, more accurately, hover like a drone and explore out-of-bounds chambers.
One of the first prototypes by St Martin’s Institute of Higher Education during experimentation: St Mary Magdalene chapel in Dingli as it could have looked centuries ago.
It was estimated that 70 per cent of the chambers featured in the institute’s virtual experience of the catacombs were physically inaccessible, Dylan Seychell, researcher and head of the Computing Department, told the Times of Malta.
The virtual experience follows another developed by the institute in 2015. For those trying out the first prototype, the experience was similar to that of a walk-through around the chambers. And, just like in real life, whenever you came up against a fence, you would have had to turn around and walk through some other corridor.
With the new drone-like effect, you can turn a full circle and look up or down, move forward in any direction and even “fly” up to openings in the chamber walls that are physically inaccessible.
You can adjust the brightness of the light within the chambers and stop to look at some artefacts you stumble upon on your way. You can hover like a drone and explore out-of-bounds chambers.
Rather than the virtualisation of cultural heritage discouraging people from visiting the place, Mr Seychell noted that such experiences usually encouraged people to visit the actual heritage site.
This latest virtualisation of the catacombs will be launched on July 27 at the institute in Ħamrun during an event about how technology is changing the way people explore and experience their cultural heritage.
This Thursday, the institute will be holding an event that will start with a brief talk about transforming the traditional user experience into a virtual reality one. This will be followed with demos and experiments. Attendance is free and the public can attend.
The institute is a pioneer in this sector, having embarked on creative computing specialisation in 2006, when the topic was still a novel idea.
To date, St Martin’s Institute is the only college in Malta that caters for a degree in creative computing, its principal, Charles Theuma, remarked.
A few years ago, it entered into a not-for-profit partnership with Heritage Malta to explore ways in which it could use technology to enhance visitors’ experience.
The institute is interested in the educational aspect of the virtualisation of cultural heritage and is looking into ways of making the app more accessible and affordable to the public.
Together with Mark Bugeja, a former student and now a lecturer, Mr Seychell is working on developing a similar experience for the recently-refurbished Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, where virtual visitors will even be able to explore parts of the site that are under neighbouring houses.
They are also looking into turning such virtual experiences into what is known as serious games (educational video games).
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