Digital Heritage: A Question of Technology, Ethics or Both?

ByAnna Vichnevetskaia

September 9, 2021

Anna Vichnevetskaia

Imagine a city’s history coming alive. With immersive technologies, this isn’t so far-fetched. As augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) are already making their way to heritage sites, installations, and museums, we will surely soon experience the history of our cities in a whole new way. For now though, we’ve got some things to figure out — is the technology quite there and who decides how and when to recreate history?

Growth of Immersive Tech

A recent report by Technavio anticipates a US$125 billion growth for the AR/VR market between 2020 and 2024. An already rapidly growing industry, immersive technologies got an unprecedented boost due to pandemic-related lockdowns. Research from GVS points in the same direction — a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.0% from 2021 to 2028.

While often associated with the entertainment and gaming industry, immersive technologies are penetrating into a variety of other sectors like healthcare, urban planning, and education. One fascinating area is the use of immersive technologies in heritage management.

How Can AR and VR Breathe Life into our Cities’ Histories?

The truth is that there are as many ways as there are creative ideas of historians, curators, urban planners, heritage managers, and even users; it just depends on whether technology and funding can keep up. There are many uses, including: conservation, education, edutainement, entertainment, marketing, enhanced user experience, accessibility, and so on.

In fact, heritage sites have already been using VR and AR for quite some time. At the start, however, they were not targeting end users. Instead, the industry started off with conservation projects like Google’s Open Heritage, which digitizes endangered heritage sites (whether due to human or natural threats). Their vast digital library includes the Bagan Temple in Myanmar, Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, and various endangered sites in Syria. Sometimes, the purpose is both conservation and access. For example, in China, cities like Dunhuang are collaborating on tech projects to make the tourism industry smarter and ensure the preservation of incredible sites like the Mogao Grottoes.

Smart tourism in Dunhuang includes electronic ticketing, Wi-Fi hotspots, tourist-flow monitoring & data analytics to optimize tourist numbers & protect sites

As society has become more comfortable with immersive technologies and used to having digital components in the user journey, many tourist attractions around the world are using VR and AR to both entertain and educate visitors. They are creating immersive experiences at heritage sites, usually with oversight from heritage bodies and in collaboration with technology firms.

Some examples include the AR experience at Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK, where visitors use an app to augment their experience.

Some sites have recreated cultural heritage in VR — like the King Tut VR by Eon Reality, or more artistic interpretations of the past like The Unfinished by Innerspace Studio, which creates a dance between two famous sculptors and lovers, August Rodin and Camille Claudelle.

The pandemic spurred on yet another use — the re-creation of heritage spaces in VR to provide users at home with access to cultural and heritage sites while in lockdown. Even if these projects were already gaining momentum, the pandemic drove exponential growth in demand for visiting say the virtual Louvre or experiencing VR travel games. TimeLooper’s 3D modeling with AR even allows users to “visit” sites like Petra through a multi-sensorial experience. 

Drone footage of the ancient city of Petra, Jordan

Essentially, the applications are only limited by our imagination, technological advancement, and of course, some ethical questions that arise when recreating history. From the tech perspective, there are many areas for improvement, leaving a lot of space for exciting research in the field. And in terms of ethics, questions are endless and answers are much less straight-forward.

What Technology Do We Need for More Immersive Digital Experiences?

Today, one of the biggest user complaints with VR is motion sickness. Research shows that this is largely caused by a mismatch between the image your brain is receiving (you are moving) with what you are actually doing (not moving). Another reason could be a low frame rate, meaning your compute power is not enough to keep up with what’s going on in the VR space. Thankfully, VR and AR is a cross-disciplinary field, so researchers across industries are looking at ways to reduce VR motion sickness.

Today, one of the biggest user complaints with VR is motion sickness.

Photorealism and meaningful interactions with non-player characters and objects are also key areas for improvement. One of the biggest complaints that digital heritage visitors have is that images are just a little too cartoonish. The technology may be there (even if there is still room for improvement), but the cost is still exorbitant to produce immersive experiences that are photorealistic or allow meaningful interactions. This is particularly true for the heritage industry, since it is not as profitable as say healthcare or even gaming, and is often funded by public institutions. That said, as the industry scale grows, we can expect costs to go down.

Ultimately, as the immersive technology market grows, we can expect technology to catch up, including connectivity, lower latency, more photorealism, and improved interactive interfaces. Where there is demand, there will be supply — this is mostly for engineers to figure out.  

But What About the Ethics of Recreating History, Even if Only Digitally?

We now have an incredible new way for us to experience history, understand heritage, and even open access to user groups that may not have had the opportunity to interact with heritage in the past. For example, research from King’s College London found that (unsurprisingly) those in rural areas benefit more from digital heritage, since their access is otherwise limited.

But any time we talk about recreating history, many questions arise beyond the tech. What I’m interested in is how these trends will affect the way we interact, perceive, and value heritage in the future.

  • How can we separate what is authentic heritage and history (always a question) from what is entertainment for the sake of attracting tourists?
  • Do we continue to value the original heritage sites as the most authentic or will digital culture heritage become more valuable, attracting the attention of users and funds?
  • What do immersive technologies mean for preserving and restoring heritage?

And most importantly, who is going to make the decisions when it comes to digital heritage? Will we default to heritage management bodies like the UNESCO and public authorities? Or are we more likely to see more impact from curators, game designers, and tech companies?  

These are just a few questions that jump out when thinking of what recreating history even in a digital realm really means. They don’t have clear answers, but they should be considered in the process of augmenting or recreating heritage through AR, VR, and MR. This isn’t a unique trend, we are seeing ethical questions, followed by policies, rolled out every day as technology becomes an ever-bigger part of our lives.

This sector is no exception, and as exciting as it may be to relive the past, it is a trend that requires oversight. On the upside though, demand for immersion will only grow, and I for one, am excited to experience history in a whole new way. 

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

One thought on “Digital Heritage: A Question of Technology, Ethics or Both?

  1. I remember having discussions a decade or more ago about whether artefacts with disputed ownership could be ‘virtually repatriated’ in any meaningful sense, or about whether 3D scanning and printing could adequately replace a destroyed monument. Possibly the biggest shift in the meantime has been a kind of democratisation of digitised heritage: we only dimly glimpsed a future in which lots of museum collections would be scanned and put on Sketchfab under open licences, let alone one in which enthusiasts with a camera and a free copy of Meshroom would be sharing 3D heritage scans too.

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Anna Vichnevetskaia

Senior Technical Writer, Huawei

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