Saturday, June 20, 2015

Stonehenge Virtual Reality tour! It’s Super Awesome!

When you put ‘solstice’ and ‘archaeology’ together in the same sentence, most people immediately think of that jewel of the Salisbury plain: Stonehenge. Throughout its long and varied career and multiple incarnations, the site has probably never been a quiet place at the solstice. Today, with competing claims for access from a variety of groups, including archaeologists, neo-pagans, neo-druids, and their assorted neophytes, you would be hard pressed to get within touching distance of the stones. With some 20,000 people expected this year, your chances of even seeing the solstice sunrise are limited, don’t mind finding any form of personal enlightenment or inner peace … or whatever you might journey there to seek. For the rest of the year, the stones are distinctly off limits to almost everyone. Unless you’re Gandalf or a high-ranking archaeologist with a superb research design your chances of getting close to those famous stones is vanishingly remote. End of story.

Except … now you can …

A quiet day at Stonehenge (source)
The wonderful Howard Goldbaum (Associate Professor, Reynolds School of Journalism University of Nevada, Reno) is the creative and technical genius behind the Voices from the Dawn and All Around Nevada projects. Through these two initiatives he has become justifiably renowned for his innovative use of Virtual Reality environments that allow personalised exploration of and interaction with various heritage sites. A little while back he reformatted his VR tour of Newgrange into a Head Mounted Display (HMD) for Google Cardboard. I went and bought a HMD set to hold my smartphone and went on my own VR visit to exploration of the Newgrange passage tomb. I was vastly impressed with it [here]. It’s easy to say that you can’t really trump the experience of seeing the site in person and, that’s generally true … but the VR tour has a number of distinct advantages that being there lacks. Not the least of these is the fact that you can take your time and are not being hustled along by a tour guide with a schedule to keep. So long as you have a web connection, you can also get a taste for the site from anywhere in the world - a very important consideration for anyone with mobility issues or who simply can't afford to travel.

Make way ... Druids coming through (Source)
Howard has now turned his attention to doing the same for Stonehenge … and he very kindly asked if I'd like to preview it. Full of anticipation and excitement, I donned suitable headgear and headed out into my back garden to explore. I thought I knew what to expect ... it's Stonehenge after all, but all I can tell you is that the results are just stunning. My comments on the Newgrange VR experience centred on the word ‘Awesome’ … but I’ve struggled to find the correct superlative for his Stonehenge work. Perhaps only ‘Super Awesome’ will really cover it. I’ve spent parts of the last week exploring the site in unprecedented detail, spending all the time I cared to looking at the bluestones or gazing up in wonder at the magnificent trilithons … the hairs on the backs of my arms standing to attention, practically enraptured at the feeling of being truly present within the stones and being wholly moved by the experience … and all from the comfort of my house and garden.

Your humble narrator exploring Stonehenge from a suburban Belfast garden ...
You can find the regular VR Tour here, and the reconfigured HMD version here.

If you have your head-mounted display, load the HMD Stonehenge tour here. Then touch the “Enter VR” button. To navigate, turn your head to align the crosshairs target with the arrow. The full Stonehenge page is here. (source)

On this solstice I would advise leaving Stonehenge to the revellers and the nervous-looking English Heritage officials. Instead, take a solitary and genuinely moving, personalised tour though this remarkable site … it is well worth the time and the price of the headset. Tomorrow, when all the visitors have gone home and the site is once again closed to the general public, you can pick up the headset and explore all over again … what’s not to like?

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