Virtual Past Places, a collaborative VR for storytelling and education

With this blog post, we would like to introduce our online virtual reality platform Virtual Past Places. From early 2021 the 4DRL has started experimenting with the browser-based collaborative VR technology of Mozilla Hubs. This came as a natural follow-up from the experiments with various Blended Learning projects in ACASA and the current interest of the 4D Research Lab into extended reality applications for storytelling and educational purposes (see e.g. here and here). Initially, the 4DRL was contacted by Paul Melis and Caspar van Leeuwen at SURF (find them here) to provide a case study for a pilot with the XR ERA network, Centre for Innovation, Leiden University, which we picked up on. The experience generated a lot of enthusiasm and ideas to continue to explore the possibilities in the 4DRL field of expertise: material heritage studies in a broad sense. This is evidently very relevant in times of Covid that placed emphasis on the necessity of online and hybrid learning approaches. This blog post aims to provide a succinct overview of recent developments and plans for the immediate future, and stages the Virtual Past Places website.

Homepage of Virtual Past Places

Experiencing virtual Vlooienburg

For the initial experiment with the XR ERA network, we used (part of) the historical reconstructions of the Vlooienburg neighbourhood, which provided us with a first impression. In addition a second room, a virtual exhibition space, was created to introduce the research project and elucidate the reconstruction process while allowing participants getting acquainted with navigating the environment. The experiences have been written up here and here, where the proper credits for this collaboration can also be found. Some of the more interesting positive observations were on 1) the possibilities presented by the platform to create different VR settings, 2) a straightforward sense of being which was much more pronounced than with a regular slideshow, 3) the fact that the onboarding was not too hard, at least not for the tech-savvy group of participants of that meeting and 4) a general sense of enthusiasm about the potential to experience 3D content in a first-person life sized perspective.

After the initial experience with the XR ERA network group, the excursion was repeated in various settings, ranging from research meetings to social events, and even valorisation purposes, the contents of the tour expanding every time.

Screenshot of the Vlooienburg VR experiment with XR ERA and SURF

Expanding the range of VR places

Inspired by these possibilities, funds have been obtained to create other virtual experiences as well. Where the Vlooienburg reconstructions represent a lost neighbourhood and how that could have looked like, as a set of visualised historical hypotheses, we thought it would be nice to add other types of projects that can benefit from virtualization.

For example, for the iconic UNESCO world heritage site of Troy, Turkey, we used models derived through drone and terrestrial photogrammetry to create a digital twin of the archaeological remains. ACASA is currently executing the Archaeology of Archaeology project at this renowned site. Although Troy is physically accessible, it is at the same time a far-away site, where you cannot take students at any moment it is opportune for a teaching module. Furthermore, it is often flooded by tourists affecting the experience, and moreover fenced off so there are parts of the site actually inaccessible for all but the archaeologists themselves. In close collaboration with project director dr. Gert Jan van Wijngaarden, a virtual tour was created, focusing on the Archaeology of Archaeology project with a specific attention on the ‘silent’ unknown workmen that did the actual excavation in most periods. Virtual information panels were placed at the site that served as illustrative materials alongside the site and the excavation trenches themselves.

Another interesting option is to place a real excavation in VR space as well. Usually such archaeological material remains are only visible during the excavation, where in the rest of the year they lie under a protective cover. The VR could allow for presenting the excavated remains and discuss the complex interpretations of the archaeology present to students and colleagues. They can enter the actual trenches where they would physically not be allowed to do so. An environment such as this can serve interesting purposes in student preparations for coming fieldwork campaigns, as well as to teach them about basic archaeological excavation methods.

Grassroots innovation

All in all, these endeavors gave us a lot of hands-on problem solving experiences with the software, which has been very helpful in getting things to run smoothly for the various VR spaces. In addition, and most importantly, the ongoing experimentation and evaluation allows for a build-up of experience and ideas on how to use such a collaborative VR effectively for storytelling and teaching purposes. Currently, this has culminated in a UvA innovation (Grassroots) project, in which we will implement Mozilla Hubs experiences as class modules in close collaboration with Gert Jan van Wijngaarden and other teachers at ACASA.

Examples of these are courses such as Archaeology, Museums and the Public, where the experience of authenticity will be critically assessed for the virtual environments, or the Research lab: The palaces of Troy IV, where the Troy VR will provide students with a comprehensible and detailed visualisation of the study subject.

The subsidy allowed the installation of a Mozilla Hubs cloud for ACASA, that provides three key-advantages; 1) control over content, as we retain full ownership over the uploaded materials, which is an important aspect in the world of heritage and visual rights, 2) scalability, i.e. temporarily upscale server capacity to allow much more participants then the standard number, and 3) branding and creating a UvA landing page, so we have been able to develop an easily accessible visual portal into the virtual spaces, which became Virtual Past Places. Furthermore, the subsidy will provide for technical assistance necessary for the cloud implementation and application during classes.

Towards further integration

At the moment, opportunities for further research and implementation are being explored. Since the content and infrastructure are secured, we aim for a deepening the conceptual embedding of VR spaces in the teaching modules, and combine that with a thorough evaluation programme to gather empirical data on the advantages and disadvantages of this technology in an educational context.

In the meantime, we welcome you at the Virtual Past Places website, where all discussed VRs (and more) are accessible:

Screenshot of Satricum VR, excavation of a Roman villa