An innovative research project aiming at improving and enhancing the current ways we are experiencing cultural heritage is underway at Sheffield Hallam University (United Kingdom) by Dr Lyuba Alboul (Senior Research Fellow – Centre of Automation and Robotics Research), Dr Louis Nisiotis (Senior Lecturer at the Department of Computing), Dr Martin Beer and their development team.
Cultural Heritage is not about just a historical site or a collection of objects, either historical or artistic or both. It is part of our eco-system and a window into our past and, however paradoxical it may appear, it is a window in our future. Our identities are formed by our cultural roots and the life of the communities is intertwined with our cultural past.
In modern days however, museum and archaeological sites visitors demand more interactive, immersive and stimulating experience from what the traditional museology has to offer, which is mainly limited to displaying artefacts in glass cases accompanied by complex descriptions. In the era of the ‘museum experience’ in which the visitor is seen as a ‘consumer’, their satisfaction is crucial to support museums continuity. With the recent advancements in technology and decrease in hardware costs, museums are using a range of technologies such as smart phones, tablets, augmented reality and virtual reality to support and enhance their visitor’s experience, introducing the concept of Virtual Museums which have drawn a lot of interest over the past few years.
Considering these ground-breaking advancement in technology, the research team at Sheffield Hallam University aims at developing an innovative Virtual Museum, a new type of Cyber-Physical-Social Eco-System (CPSeS) that would merge the real (physical) with virtual worlds interactively using robots as guides and actuators, engendered by humans and their social behaviour.
The project seeks to develop new and exciting methods of engaging the current generation of museum and archaeological sites visitors, who are influenced by their exposure to modern technology i.e. social media, smart phones, and computer games, by providing a unique experience of exploring both worlds simultaneously.
Lead researcher Dr Lyuba Alboul, explains:
“With the development of modern technology we can create new approaches not only to protect cultural heritage sites and made them available for a wide range of public, but to also create system that will allow to connect the audience to events and/or objects, or phenomena, separated either in time or in space or both, as well as provide ‘rendezvous’ among members of the audience, via various media and mediums. This will lead in developing new types of storytelling, allowing visitors to create their own narratives as well as communicating with each other.”
Co-lead researcher Dr Nisiotis further explains that:
“The proposed system wants to go beyond current augmented and virtual reality environment trends, by merging the physical with the virtual world using cutting edge robotics technology for actuating and guiding purposes, immersive technologies, and integrating interaction and social input between visitors.”
Robots are often associated in popular press with either impressive Hollywood humanoid characters or with machines. In reality, however, the recent research in the robotics domain has allowed for robots to become complex creations that can be extremely useful when utilised properly in several domains. In the context of cultural heritage for instance, heritage sites are often large and hindered by a plethora of hazards such as geological or landscape hazards, may be simply inaccessible, and robot exploration of these environments can help in: collecting data to further digitizing them; assisting and protecting human resources, and providing remote access to restricted areas. Furthermore, VR technology has been applied to the protection of cultural heritage for about two decades to help preserving site records or aiding in reconstruction if a heritage location undergoes future damage. Merging these technologies together in meaningful ways can be very intriguing and exciting. The data collected by robots sensors and other means will help in creating a 3-D (three-dimensional) representation of historic sites for instance. Further modifications can be applied in order to visualize the site at it was initially and analyse the hazards (and/or disasters) that led to its current state, or recreate areas that simply are not existing anymore.
Dr Alboul explained, that:
Combining Robots, AR, VR and gaming technology, we can create a realistic representation of the site at various moments of its time line by adding characters (avatars) to the 3D representation, thus creating a 3D+T(time) scene reconstruction. This will allow visitors to ‘explore’ and to ‘see’ events in the past”
The team is developing an innovative interactive prototype which gained interest from domestic and international experts, featuring the RoboSHU ‘Virtual Museum’, This is a multi user virtual reality prototype in which visitors can connect and navigate in the virtual environment using their smart phone and not only, and learn about the history of Robotics, the work of Sheffield Robotics and the Centre of Automation and Robotics Research, communicate and interact with each other. Also, users can navigate the real space of the Materials and Engineering exhibition space of Sheffield Hallam University, through the use of a real robot as a guide, experiencing the world through its eyes! Currently, the team is focussing on technical aspects of developing the prototype, connecting people and robots to it, and adding additional functionalities.
Dr Nisiotis, further explains however that:
[…] the concept of the Virtual Museum can be perceived in a much broader sense, as a type of a Cyber-Physical-Social Eco-Society that can be applied to a plethora of domains.
The initial pilot prototype was first demonstrated at the “Being Human” Robotics festival in that took place in Sheffield in November 2016. The prototype has also won an award at the 6th International Conference on Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics.
More information about this project can be found: http://www.virtualshu.com/roboshu
The research team would like to express thanks to the intern students from ISEN (Higher Institute for Electronics and Digital Training), Lille, France: Jean- Alexis Hermel, Léo Dedeine and Robin Ghys for their contribution to the development of the Virtual Museum , to Professor Jacques Penders, the Head of the Centre for Automation and Robotics Research, for providing the working environment and equipment, in particular robot Fetch itself, to Professor Andrew Alderson, the Director of the Materials and Engineering Research Institute, Dr Simon Andrews (Department of Computing Research Lead), and the department of Computing for the support of this project.
Sppecial thanks also to Costas Athanasiou for covering our story.