COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE NATIONAL TRUST AND VISTA AR
As you will be aware, the VISTA AR project is an EU-funded cross-channel research collaboration between eight different partners. Whilst a key output of the project is to research and deliver high-tech solutions at low cost for cultural heritage sites in the UK and France, the partnership’s strength lies in the focus on Business Model innovation, aiding small to medium heritage sites to better understand their visitors and design creative engagement opportunities to ultimately increase their revenue.
The collaboration between the NT and the project started back in 2017. The National Trust team discussed their Business Model Innovation with the Exeter team and the outcome of this process informed the creative output: narration, scenario, type of technical device and technical specifications. A section of the mines was scanned by members of EESAB (Ecole européene supérieur d’art de Bretagne, France) to create a 3D model which was then replicated in stone by master stonemasons. The National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University, with the consultancy of experts at the National Trust, overlaid the stone model with digital textures and animated elements of the landscape, such as count houses, chimneys and mine entrances. This work will enable the National Trust – Tin Coast to offer two new experiences to visitors. The first implementation is an augmented reality experience of the past landscape of the coast. Triggered by the stone model of the Tin Coast and delivered on a tablet, the app allows visitors to visualise the mining landscape as it was at the height of the industry in the 1860s, as well as to appreciate the changes to the landscape, buildings and sea surrounding the site. Visitors will also be able to try a sensorial VR experience of a descent into a working mine.
The story the teams want to tell in the AR experience is that of how people shaped the landscape and the landscape shaped the lives of people. The scenic stretch of the coast of Botallack, which attracts many tourists every season, strongly contrasts with the heavily polluted and scarred landscape resulting from the traditional mining activity, which reached its peak during the 1860s. The augmented reality app is the perfect tool for recreating the landscape as it was during this era. Modelling the various buildings dotting the area and animating the scene with miners involved in extraction activities shows how the miners and the technology worked together. These structures were recreated as 3D models and then placed in the landscape, which was reproduced as a virtual environment using the scanned images of one square kilometre of the area surrounding Botallack.
The landscape, structures, miners and animations were created with the help of original photographic and pictorial sources and with regular consultancy with experts. The Bournemouth team worked with curation expert Cristina Mosconi from the University of Exeter, Nelleke IJssennagger-Van der Pluijm (NT curator for Cornwall) and Jim Parry (NT Archaeologist). James Breslin (NT Operations and Development Manager) solicited the assistance of Adam Sharpe (CAU) and Ainsley Cocks (WHS) to make sure the models were as historically accurate as possible. This partnership working continued into 2021, with work on minute details such as the exact components of the mining machinery, the noises the various tools would have made, the clothing of the miners and the balmaidens, the texture of the stone lintels on the buildings and the number of rods powering the Man Engine.
The team were fortunate to be able to procure the services of local well-known actor, Ed Rowe, the “Kernow King”, who lent a touch of authenticity to the voiceovers of the experience. Additional sounds, from the birds flying overhead to the sound of the machinery in operation, involved detailed research.
The resulting AR experience is based at Botallack, where the stone model takes pride of place. The tablets currently in use are Android tablets, encased in a robust case, with a large enough screen to be able to see the details of the landscape as it comes to life yet lightweight enough for visitors to hold as they move around the model. The experience will allow the working landscape to tell the stories of the area without the need for further physical on-site interpretation. The target audience for the VISTA AR project will be visitors to the Tin Coast who want to discover more about the landscape, specifically “explorer families” and “curious minds”. The outcome for these visitors is that they will be able to see the landscape as it would have been – dirty, noisy and industrial – and also explore previously unseen areas such as the underground mines.
The VR experience is due to be based at East Pool Mine, inside the newly-renovated Miners’ Dry. The story here is delivered via a narrative of descending and exploring the mine as it would have been during the 1860s. Delivered as an immersive experience through a VR headset, the visitor will experience the mine as if they were really there, and for someone coming to the experience from the still- industrial landscape of the site, see the contrast between life below and above ground. The visual reconstruction has been enriched with sounds recreating the original soundscape of a working mine. Visitors will be immersed in the exploration of the mine while hearing the sound of water dripping down the walls of the mine, the loud noise of tools wielded by miners and their shouts. The team again collaborated with local experts and spoke with local residents who had been down the mines and remembered vividly what it was like. The Rosevale Mine, the only mine still accessible locally, was scanned and from there an authentic virtual environment was created. A storyboard and script were written based on historical accounts. Particular attention was paid to details such as the light cast on the walls by the candles – the visitor actually uses the VR controller as a lamp that can be held up to illuminate the tunnel as they look around and advance through the mine.
The VR Mine experience V1 was tested during the National Trust annual staff meeting, held in Redruth, in January 2020. Close to 20 NT guides took the experience, after which they provided comments on the 4 key aspects of the experience: visual quality, sound quality, content/storyline, and ease of use. As a result of the feedback given, changes were made in version 2 of the experience. User comments were therefore instrumental in shaping the final device.
Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, implementation of the devices onsite is now due to happen in 2021, more than a year after it was previously envisaged. The final applications will contain full instructions for the user and a Cleanbox system will be in place at East Pool for sanitising headsets with UVC ray technology, in front of the user after each use, thereby increasing visitor confidence. To address the impact of the pandemic and the fact that sites have been closed, an online experience is being developed which will enable potential visitors to try a free teaser of the AR app at home, with an embedded questionnaire which looks at propensity to visit the site with AR/VR and intention to visit post-Covid.
A further aspect of the VISTA AR project is the collection and analysis of visitor data. The project has developed a number of tools to assist sites in finding out more about their visitors, including a text analysis tool that uses NLP techniques to analyse the sentiment behind comments left on Trip Advisor and produces visuals for site managers to see the areas that people are really commenting on. A review capture form has also been created, for Botallack and East Pool Mine, to increase the amount of data that can be collected. The analysis will be presented on a dashboard from which detailed reports will be generated. Site managers can then use these to inform their visitor experience and Business Model. The dashboard will also be able to compare feedback prior to implementation of the new technologies with visitor comments on the AR and VR, giving an idea of how the technology has impacted the visitor experience as a whole. The National Trust has been helping VISTA develop the experience by using the dashboard and giving feedback on functionalities and visuals. The final product should include the ability to add other historical data for analysis by the text analytics tool.
Review Capture Form (see article : Capturing visitor comments)