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Reconstructing Scotland's past with virtual reality technology

Research from the University of St Andrews has brought together virtual reality technology and Scottish history, allowing for people to emerge themselves in various historical artefacts for the first time. Recent times have seen the rapid development of virtual and augmented technology while at the same time the interest in Scottish history and culture has grown thanks to its influence in television, movies and computer games. Using expert advice and data, the research team created accurate virtual reconstructions of historic sites which are available for local communities to enjoy and learn from.

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While there have been significant developments in virtual reality technologies, there are still obstacles to overcome. The main challenges when it comes to creating virtual 3D models are high costs and the logistics of making the models available to as many people as possible, especially those in small community settings. However, the team of researchers at St Andrews have been able to reduce these challenges.

Researchers have been able to create accurate reconstructions of historic Scottish sites, including St Andrews Cathedral and Linlithgow Palace, at a radically reduced cost. These recreations are also able to be viewed in different locations, which provides more people with the opportunity to view local sites in their intended state for the first time, contributing to a better understanding of the site’s heritage and history.

The research, which was funded by the EPSRC, Higher Education Academy (HEA), and the University of St Andrews, brought together researchers from Computer Science, Classics, Art History and Archaeology and focused on four strands of research:

  • the use of 3D technologies in education
  • Open Virtual World (OVW) system measurement and design
  • methods for creating authentic historic scenes
  • platforms for delivering content over the internet, in schools, in museums and on site.

Researchers worked to ensure that the reenactments were as authentic as possible by using expert evidence and interpretation. In the initial stages, a range of prototypes were created which supported virtual archaeological fieldwork. The prototypes used 3D game engines, virtual reality (VR), and Second Life, which is an online virtual world. Second Life was chosen to proceed with as it allowed for collaborative live development. Gaming methodologies within an integrated 2D web and 3D open virtual world (OVW) framework were then applied to the application. However, following an evaluation of a series of factors including system performance and reconstruction methodology, Second Life was found to restrict the potential educational value. For this reason, the reliance on Second Life was removed.

The use of open-source tools such as OpenSim required significant systems analysis and development. The results of these studies allowed for the development, configuration and deployment of OVWs. Software development, scholarship, real-world data, 3D modelling, and interpretation were then integrated to create historically authentic 3D models.

Bringing together the four strands of research, the team created a Virtual Time Travel Platform (VTTP). The VTTP supported the collaborative creation of historic scenes and their installation in various community settings while still being based on archaeological, historical and digital data. The VTTP has been showcased in different museums and schools in Scotland and a further 20 venues around the world. Dundee’s ‘Science in the City’ event in 2012 saw over 1,000 visitors experience the VTTP. The event was attended by members of the public, primary school pupils and STEM ambassadors.

The VTTP was also installed in Timespan, a museum and heritage centre based in Helmsdale. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Sutherland clearances, the Timespan VTTP installation featured a pre-clearance Caen Highland Township. This recreation allowed for visitors to experience an exhibition like never before and get a better understanding of what 1800s Highland Scotland was like. Visitor numbers to Timespan increased 32% in the month following the VTTP installation, and those who visited said that they left wanting to find out more about life in the Highlands.

Following on from the success of the Caen project at Timespan, Historic Scotland, Creative Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund have funded further VTTP installations of Scottish artefacts including the Brora Salt Pans, St Kilda World Heritage site and the Eyemouth Fort Museum.

Assisted Learning students have also benefited from experiencing the VTTP as the controls resemble that of a game console that they are already familiar with. This familiarity enabled them to be fully engaged in the activity which encouraged the use of cooperative learning and oral communication skills. Following a meeting with HM Inspectorate of Schools, the VTTP was demonstrated at the Scottish Association of Teachers of History Conference and distributed through the pan-Scotland GLOW website.

Press coverage of the VTTP has reached a print circulation of over 200,000 which has translated into over 2,000 online registrations and 20,000 web visits from 112 countries. Furthermore, immersive reconstructions have allowed for people from all backgrounds to gain new insights into Scottish cultural heritage. By bringing the technology to local communities, people who previously may not have had the chance have been able to get inspired and engaged with Scottish history and culture.


  • Science awareness: the VTTP has been exhibited at various public science events including Dundee Science Centre’s ‘Create and Inspire’ and ‘Science in the City’. Visitors to the exhibitions have included school pupils, STEM ambassadors and general members of the public.
  • Installations in museums: the Timespan museum saw a 32% increase in its visitor numbers in the first month following the VTTP installation. Over 40 local community groups have also had access to the VTTP at Timespan to learn about the Highland Clearances.
  • Education and schools: various primary and secondary schools have benefited from using the VTTP. This has helped them to get a better understanding of Scottish history and culture.
  • Press and TV coverage: the project has had various press and TV coverage with a total print circulation of over 200,000. This has led to over 2,000 online registrations and 20,000 web visits from 112 countries.

Thursday 7 June 2018

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