Last month, I (together with my family and some friends) tried the virtual reality (VR) experience that has been created for the museum in Gamla Uppsala. VR is used to let people explore the area around Gamla Uppsala, experiencing what it looked like back in the year 650 AD. 650 AD is in the middle of the Vendeltid era (before the Viking age which is typically considered to start around the year 800). At this point in time, Gamla Uppsala had been an important religious and political center for a long time. The big burial mounds that dominate the landscape to this day were already old by then, having built in the 500s.
In 650 AD, the area contained a royal hall, a banquet hall, and a large settlement with farms and artisans. All of this is gone today, with the old religious and royal buildings replaced with the first Cathedral built in Sweden in the 1100s (the remaining parts of which is now the church in Gamla Uppsala). The landscape looks a bit different today too.
Using Virtual Reality to let you experience what it looked like back then is a great idea! It removes the modern buildings and roads, and shows the landscape as it was back then. The VR world that has been built contains the buildings, including not just the grand halls, but also blacksmiths, farm houses, tents for the big summer market (Disting), and even iron-age toilet facilities. It allows you to see things that are not there today anymore like the two kilometer-long lines of wooden poles that were discovered quite recently. There are not very many people around, as making that work is a lot harder than showing the static buildings and monuments.
In a nice touch, the setup also includes a reproduction of the tunnel that was dug into one of the mounds in 1846. In some places, text explanations pop up. Which kind of brings in a bigger question – just letting people wander around in VR is is pretty similar to wandering around a real-world site. For the best experience and understanding, you really need more guidance. An interesting concept would be to do entire guided tours in VR – I think it could it be a great experience to have a whole group move around in the VR world along with a guide. Requires quite a bit of hardware to achieve, though.
You book the experience for ten minutes per person and the list seems to fill up quickly so it is a good idea to arrive basically when the museum opens if you want to try this for yourself. Right now, there is only one setup (since it needs a museum staff member to assist you) so the throughput is a bit low. Ten minutes is also maybe a bit on the short side to really explore the full virtual world.
Using Oculus Rift
The system is built using Oculus Rift hardware, using its hand controllers to move around –a slow walk when moving using the control stick, and a teleport facility to jump around quicker. This was the first time any of us tried this system, and we all got the hang of it pretty quickly. One small issue is the cable between the headset and the computer running the simulation – when you turn to look around, it is easy to wind yourself up in it. And since VR really is all-encompassing, you need someone to help you manage the cable. The museum has an assistant there to help with the technology, and this is a real scalability limiter to the wider use of VR: each visitor basically needs a guide to help them use it. To make this a “self service” experience, better technology would be needed – probably some kind of wireless setup, plus a physical fence to keep you from wandering off blindly in the physical world.
It is actually rather fascinating how much you do get immersed in the world – even with the current technology that does need some improvement. For me personally, it was a bit underwhelming due to the rather blurry picture, as I could not use glasses inside the VR headset. I thought that maybe the closeness of the screen to the eyes would compensate, but in practice my myopia is bad enough that I cannot actually see very well inside a VR headset. This is a rather big issue with VR that I had not thought about in the past. It seems this might be a particularly bad problem with the Oculus setup – I briefly tried some other variant last year at a trade show and it worked better.
Understanding the Real World via VR
Thanks to the mounds, you have some kind of anchor to help you map the VR experience to the current geography of the area. Still, it was surprisingly hard to navigate and get a sense of direction inside the VR world. I don’t know if this is a general VR problem or just a particular issue with this creation. Maybe there is something missing that we use to orient ourselves in the real world – like the fact that there is feedback from gravity, sloping ground, wind, etc. Just using the eyes is not really enough to really get a feel for the place. I know the area pretty well, and I had a hard time finding my way even to obvious things like the big mounds.
Another thing that felt off was the size of the area. It felt somehow bigger than in real life, or maybe I felt smaller. The distances somehow felt bigger than in real life. When we got out and walked through the area afterwards, it was striking how much closer together everything felt. Maybe it is something with the speed of movement or the scale shown in the headsets, but it was a bit off.
Perhaps adding to the bodily confusion, some things are done using physical interaction with the world. Apart from the obvious action of looking around, you can for example lean down and put your hands at physical floor level to pick something up from the virtual ground (even if the action of “picking up” is completed using a button press on the controller). This means the VR experience lets you do some motions in a “real world” way.
Thinking about it, the VR experience is more like flying around the area in a drone and watching through its cameras, than being there in person. All you are doing is watching and moving around using a control stick.
The kids loved it, and experience playing games definitely help when doing VR. For some reason, the older kids also tried to hit the (few) people present in the world using the objects you could pick up – in particular the swords. Some kind of computer game influence 🙂
Overall, I think this setup shows the usefulness of VR as a pedagogical tool. It is definitely better than trying to look around using a flat screen and a game controller, but the limited physical feedback and interaction still makes it rather artificial. It is more an evolution of graphics that of actual interaction, so far.
I can see VR being easier to accept in settings that you do not know well from the real world, and for things like games where you control some kind of vehicle I can see it feel really “natural”.