Pre-Pandemic values for the Travel & Tourism Industry, according to the WTTC, accounted for over 10% of the global GDP, meaning it’s still one of the most attractive activities for people worldwide, who are constantly looking for innovative and engaging ways for exploring cities, landmarks, museums and other attractions.
The demand for memorable experiences, coupled with the advancements in the technology, led to the transition from Cultural Heritage to Digital Heritage.
According to UNESCO, Heritage is defined as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. A heritage is something that is, or should be, passed from generation to generation because it is valued.”
Furthermore, UNESCO defines Digital Heritage as something that “is made up of computer-based materials of enduring value that should be kept for future generations.”
A survey from Osservatori Digital Innovation gathered information from over 400 Italian cultural heritage operators, finding that 11% of them are already providing AR/VR experience to their visitors, while 50% of them are thinking about introducing some sort of immersive experience in the future.
This premise prompts us to explore in more detail the Digital Heritage industry and the process and tools needed to design and implement successful immersive experiences in the cultural heritage sector.
Digital processing of historical and documentary research
Designing Digital Heritage experiences requires a preliminary stage related to historical research in order to guarantee a high degree of accuracy of both storytelling and digital assets. It is true that immersive experiences have to be entertaining, but they have to be accurate and scientifically verified nonetheless.
Typically during this stage, experts from different disciplines have to be involved in the process, from historians to archeologists, including software developers and digital creatives.
The output should be a scientifically validated set of digital assets that will be included in the web, mobile or wearable applications.
3D Modeling and Reconstruction of Objects and Monuments
Once the historical context has been defined, it becomes possible to start creating the digital assets to be incorporated into the virtual experiences.
As of today there are several different ways to produce 3D content with the two most common approaches being 1) from a photogrammetric survey and 2) from scratch.
Creating digital assets starting from photogrammetry
There are a few reasons why a team working at a Digital Heritage project decides to rely on photogrammetry for the reconstruction of objects, monuments and environments in general, the first one being the ability of scanning large sites and objects in a short time, while getting a high degree of accuracy and quality. Furthermore, photogrammetry is often used to get tracking data needed for 3D object recognition and tracking, a method used for Augmented Reality experiences that require the perfect superimposition of virtual content to the real object.
The benefits of using photogrammetry come also with a few downsides. Working with photogrammetry requires the digital team to be on-site, often requiring special permissions to operate in areas with restrictions, especially if using drones. Moreover, photogrammetry may be expensive in some cases because it requires special equipment (not always) such as depth cameras, drones, etc…
Finally in order to obtain the final 3D product, photogrammetry requires a few stages of processing and optimization.
Alongside with photogrammetry another popular visual surveying technique used for Digital Heritage capture is laser scanning.
Creating digital assets starting from scratch
In some cases the project team decides to go for creating objects and models from scratch and that may be for several reasons. For example the site or object may not be readily available for photogrammetry or laser scanning, or simply the Digital Heritage project may be related to sites that just host a few ruins, while the ancient monuments that have to be 3D modeled have gone completely lost.
In the scenario of creating 3D assets from scratch implies following a workflow based on 3D modeling software, such as 3ds Max, Blender, Maya and so on, and all the due optimization activities. By optimization we mean creating a digital project that runs smoothly on mobile and/or wearable devices, that typically don’t have the same processing power that dedicated workstations for 3D modeling have.
This 3D models’ optimization for Augmented and Virtual Reality requires activities on poly count and textures mostly, in order to make them suitable for the target devices.
Digital storytelling and Immersive Tours
When dealing with Digital Heritage projects the goal is usually to provide a highly engaging experience for tourists and visitors, letting them discover venues with innovative tools and techniques.
One of the most important elements to engage the user is to design and create a digital storytelling that puts together history, curiosities and fun in a single experience.
The storytelling can be designed by giving the experience a chronological sense, or even by letting users explore without a given order, and that has to be decided according to the peculiarities of the site.
Digital Heritage Indoors Immersive Tours
Indoor environments are typically more controlled in terms of spaces, lighting and routes. Objects inside museums, art galleries and other indoor institutions are less subject to changes, they are not affected by climatic aspects, changing lighting conditions during the day and that makes it generally easier to design, implement and even run Digital Heritage projects.
For indoor projects it is also easier to manage devices, if the experiences foresee their use, compared to outdoor areas where there may be no boundaries at all and controlling how devices are being distributed and recollected can be more challenging.
A relevant project of indoor Cultural Heritage valorization in which Inglobe took part, which we consider worthy of mention is the “The Ara As It Was”, regarding the Ara Pacis, an ancient Roman altar hosted in a spectacular building in the heart of Rome.
Digital Heritage Outdoors Immersive Tours
When target sites are located outdoors the technical approach followed and the resulting user experience can change compared to indoor locations. That’s the case of archeological sites and city tours for example.
Working outdoors implies being subject to day and night, varying lighting conditions, varying weather, seasonals changes in the environment and so on. All these variables make it harder to design a solution that works in all such conditions and may require some kind of adjustment.
For example when working with Object Recognition, varying lighting conditions and shadows are challenges that must be properly tackled.
In some cases devices used outdoors can suffer some kind of stress as well, like for example extreme temperatures that can jeopardize proper operation. These issues can be mitigated as well with the proper experience and equipment.
A relevant project of outdoor Cultural Heritage valorization in which Inglobe took part, which we consider worthy of mention is the Circo Maximo Experience.
AR/VR Authoring Workflow for Digital Heritage
Depending on how the project has been designed and on what kind of device it will have to run, there can be several options for the development of the experience. The project may run on one or more of the following: web browser; mobile device; wearable device.
The user experience will necessarily be different on these platforms, since on some you interact through the mouse, on one interaction is managed by taps and in other cases interaction is voice controlled or even totally automated.
Development platforms may include custom coding using an Augmented Reality SDK, development on Unity or Unreal Engine and it may or may not include mobile/wearable development if the experience has to be packed for such devices.
However on the market there are tools like AR-media Studio that let you easily integrate your immersive content (3D, 360s, Videos, etc…) in a straightforward manner, by using a visual approach that requires no coding at all.
Creating Digital Heritage projects with AR-media is easy and fun. Contents can be downloaded right away or can be saved on devices for later use, a useful functionality when there is a chance of using devices in remote locations or in absence of an internet connection.