Friday, March 27, 2015

This VR Tour of Newgrange is Awesome!

I was supposed to be getting work done today! I had intended to pick the boys up from school, help with their homework, do a bit of housework, flit about on Facebook and Twitter … maybe even read a bit of an archaeology book … nothing too crazy. Instead I’ve spent much of the afternoon standing in one spot and breathlessly saying ‘awesome’. In fairness, I’ve not been alone – the Chapples Minor have also been standing about alternating between ‘awesome’, ‘cool’ and ‘wow’ … but the emphasis is clearly on the ‘Aaaaaaaaawesome’.

Let’s back up slightly …

I consider myself fortunate to be among the number of correspondents that the wonderful Howard Goldbaum (he of Voices from the Dawn [Facebook | Web] and All Around Nevada [Web]) uses to Beta test some of his project on. They’re invariably wonderful and seem to require little input for me, but at least I get to see so much of his work before it goes public. About a week or so ago I received an email from Howard about a new post: Experience Newgrange through a Head-Mounted Display. For those of you not familiar with his Voices from the Dawn project, Howard provides a beautifully written piece on his chosen monument, putting it into its archaeological, historical, landscape and folkloric contexts and tops the lot off with a superb Virtual Reality tour. His original post on Newgrange is here. What he has now done is taken that VR Tour of the site and reformatted it so that it utilises the motion sensors within your smartphone and (with the aid of a simple headset) turned it into a completely immersive experience. I got the opportunity to try out this type of headset when the Game of Thrones exhibition came to Belfast in June 2014. For fans of the show, it was a really thrilling experience to feel like you were really being hoisted to the top of The Wall – a 700ft defensive work made of solid ice. I genuinely had to keep reminding myself that I was actually safe on the ground in Belfast and not – as my mind was forcefully telling me – about to come to a sticky end in a mythical kingdom. I loved it! I adored it! … and was terribly sorry that there was little chance that I’d see anything like this in my home (and at a reasonable price) in the near future. I was wrong!

The name Google Cardboard doesn’t really have the same cachet as Google Glass or any one of the weird and wonderful startups that Google has invested in … but it should! It’s a really simple idea … a fold-out cardboard mount that allows you to turn your smartphone into a VR Headset. You can buy a version that requires some amount of assembly, or download a template for the DIY enthusiast. What’s not to like? For about the same price of the cardboard version from Google, I found a suitably Sci-Fi set ready made to fit my phone here (Universal VR Virtual Reality 3D Video Glasses For 4~6 inch Smartphones). The version I bought has some terribly translated instructions that tell me that ‘The phone pixel is more higher, the effect of viewing is more better’. In fairness, you don’t need much in the way of instruction to pop your phone in & away you go.

Side-by-side Newgranges (Source)
In your hand the phone just shows two side-by-side images of the site … but once in the headset, and viewed through the lenses, you’ll find yourself standing outside the famous façade of Newgrange … look one way and you’re taking in the panorama of the Boyne Valley before you, but turn your head and you’re looking at the massive stone circle, and then at the entrance to the tomb itself. Simply move the plus sign ‘+’ in the centre of the screen to the middle of the large arrow that’s hanging about in space and you’ll be transported inside … first to a place along the passage .. and then to the very centre of the tomb itself … moving about, you can peer towards the chambers and the impressive basin stones, eventually raising your head to look up to that most famous of corbelled roofs – older than Stonehenge … older than the pyramids at Giza … and let the ‘Wow’s’ commence! Or … you can look up to the ceiling first and then to the side chambers … it’s all up to you!

I’ve been inside Newgrange on a number of occasions and it’s always special. This may not be the real thing, but it’s pretty close! It does give you the feeling of being able to experience the monument in a personal and private way (not always an option at the real thing) and if it convinces even one person to come see Newgrange for themselves, it’s a very good thing indeed!

Oculus Rift headsets at the Game of Thrones exhibit
Since the post came, the Chapples Minor and I have been experimenting with various 3D VR apps … the Cosmic Roller Coaster is pretty amazing (high ‘Awesome’ count from all), but the Tuscan Villa just didn’t cut it for me. As far as I’m aware, Howard has produced the world’s first archaeology example (or, Irish one at the very least). I would use this public place to make a very personal plea to him here: Howard … PLEASE make more of these! This is absolutely awesome & I want to see more! But right now, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me … you see, I’m off to enjoy the rather talented Jack White on stage!

Get Howard's Tour of Newgrange here
He has also produced this rather fine tour of the American Flat Mill in Nevada here and a regular VR tour & background here.

If you’d like to experience Howard's Newgrange for yourself & you’d like to buy a headset, please consider going via one of the links below – I make (literally) a few pence per transaction & it costs you nothing!