New Year, New Dimension: the Royal Pavilion Estate in VR

It’s always good to kick off a New Year with something new, so I’m delighted to introduce the Royal Pavilion & Museums first venture into virtual reality (VR).

Screen grab of VR version of Royal Pavilon Estate model
VR version of Royal Pavilon Estate model — when viewed without a VR viewer

Volunteer 3D modeller Colin Jones has produced a model of the Royal Pavilion Estate that allows you to explore some of the buildings from a central point in the Pavilion Garden. All you need to access it is a smartphone and a Google Cardboard style VR viewer.

To use the model, simply go to http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/VRPavilion on your phone browser, then pop the phone into your viewer. You will now be able to use the viewer to explore the estate with a turn of your head.

Colin has also produced another version of the model which can be used without a VR viewer: http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/3DPavilion This version features an audio commentary by curator Alexandra Loske and should be accessible on any computer, tablet or smartphone with an internet browser.

The model can be sampled below, but is best viewed in full screen.

Going 3D

This is likely to be one of several uses of 3D digital technology we will be experimenting with this year. Colin is working on further models of the Royal Pavilion Estate at different stages in its history, and we plan to showcase some of these in our forthcoming Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate exhibition in Brighton Museum.

We have also been exploring 3D digitisation with the University of Brighton’s Cultural Informatics Group. Some of these digitised models are available online, and we are currenlty working with them to publish 3D images of coins and other items in our numismatics collections online.

You can also find some other examples of digital 3D technology on our website, produced in partnership with digital agency MOHARA. These include Murder in the Manor, a recreation of Preston Manor as a murder mystery game; Tales of the Pavilion Hospital, a fictional exploration of the building’s use as a WW1 military hospital; and our virtual tours of the Royal Pavilion.

Why 3D?

You may wonder why we are investing so much time in exploring 3D. Although there is quite a buzz around VR at the moment, there are deeper reasons behind using this technology.

First, the move to 3D is a logical extension of the digitisation work we have been carrying out for several years. Like many museums, we have been digitising our collections since the early 2000s, but it’s always been a fundamentally unequal process. The word ‘digitisation’ is generally taken to mean the conversion of a physical object into an electronic copy; in practice most museum digitisation is a case of taking a photograph or scan of an object and presenting the image with its related catalogue data online. In the case of a 2D work like a painting or a photograph, that image can act as a reproducible copy of the original. In the case of a 3D object, like a pot or a handaxe, the digitised work is at best a series of partial views of the original object.

In short, this feels like a copy:

Photo of The Raising of Lazarus, Jan Lievens 1631
The Raising of Lazarus, Jan Lievens 1631

And this feels like an illustration:

Photo of Pot with lid, 18th-19th entury.
Pot with lid, 18th-19th century

 

From this perspective, the ability to digitally reproduce objects as 3D models is a solution to that problem. It also opens up the possibility of creating physical replicas through 3D printing.

The complication is that even in its simplest form, digitisation is a labour-intensive and time-consuiming process. Producing 3D models, whether by scanning or photogrammetry, takes far more work.Rendering those models online is also much more complex than dropping an image file into a database. It’s an important area of exploration — and one where the University of Brighton’s Cultural Informatics Group are leading the way — but the days of mass 3D digitisation are probably still some way off.

3D Storytelling

A second reason for exploring 3D is that it opens up new opportunities for storytelling. The combination of rich narratives and a navigable space can create compelling and immersive experiences. Our Murder in the Manor website is a great example of that: although it receives a modest number of users, it still receives by far the longest dwell time from its users of any microsite or digital experience we’ve created.

But this capacity for 3D storytelling goes beyond simply creating a sense of immersion. 3D technology allows a user to explore an object or a space from a variety of viewpoints; that variety of viewpoints can allow for a variety of talking points.

As an example, take this view of the Royal Pavilion Estate from another of Colin Jones’ models:

3D model showing Northgate House on the Royal Pavilion Estate, c1832.

This shows the northern edge of the estate in the early 1830s, shortly after the death of George IV. Although the model is based on contemporary sources, such as maps and topographic prints, it presents a view that does not exist in any record of the estate from that time.

When I first saw this image I was struck by how well it illustrated one particular story about the Pavilion Estate. Late in life, George constructed a tunnel beneath the garden, connecting the Royal Pavilion to the Dome, his stable complex. One of his motivations for creating this expensive tunnel was that he was fond of his horses, and wanted to visit them without having to cross open ground. At a time when he was deeply unpopular with his subjects and grossly overweight, he apparently feared the reaction of people who might spot him in the garden.

It’s hard to tell this story in the Pavilion itself, or even the garden, which now has the later William IV gate providing a more secluded view. But this model shows just how exposed the northen side of the estate was at this time. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine crowds of people peering or jeering over the low wall.

With thanks…. and over to you

Of course, my thoughts about 3D are fairly irrelevant if there’s no wider interest in this. One of my ambitions in launching these models is to try and learn what people think of them.

This is something we explored with our Three Ways to 3D History event in last year’s Brighton Digital Festival. The reactions then were positive, perhaps surprisingly so, but there are a whole host of questions to be answered. Does VR provide an engaging way of exploring spaces? Do 3D models really provide a platform for richer storytelling? What potential is there for 3D to be used as a teaching tool? Is it fun? I’d love to hear of any reactions or observations in the comment box below.

Finally, my sincere thanks must go to Colin Jones for his work in producing these models, all of which has been on a voluntary basis. This is an area of work we simply would not have the resources to pursue if it was not for his generosity and dedication. Digital innovation is often expensive and risky, so partnerships with committed volunteers like Colin and organisations like the University of Brighton provide vital support as we look for new ways in which we can tell stories about our collections and buildings.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager