A new app offers a look at city life more than 3,000 years ago
Our brains aren’t wired to look at 3,200-year-old ruins and see the vibrant city that once was, but soon our smartphones will do just that.
UBC archaeologists working among ruins on the island of Cyprus are developing a new mobile application that lets users tour Bronze Age rubble and see reconstructed city buildings. Point your mobile device at an archaeological dig and a scene will come alive before your eyes. It’s like a Google Street View for the past, but in the lexicon of the tech-world it’s known as augmented reality.
“The experience of being able to walk about an archaeological site and see what an ancient city might have looked like in its original context is unique,” says UBC researcher Kevin Fisher. “Augmented reality is a relatively new technology but it has the potential to revolutionize the way people experience archaeological sites.”
For this project, Fisher, a professor in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies, has partnered with a group of engineers at UBC’s Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre (MAGIC), led by postdoctoral fellow Payam Rahmdel. For now the researchers are developing the app for just one archaeological site but the project could be a stepping-stone for creating new tools for archaeologists and tourists.
The app, called KAD-AR, is among the first of its kind and Rahmdel says it stands out because it gives users an interactive experience using both visual data and location and GPS data.
“Many museums use augmented reality to give visitors extra experiences like watching a video interview about an artifact or seeing some pictures of where it was found,” says Rahmdel. “With our app, you’re moving inside a room that is in ruin, seeing it as it was and learning more about it. No other tools look at it this way.”
The app is designed so that users can walk around the archaeological site and point their handheld device in any direction to see reconstructions of ruins, locations of buried features, and pull up additional information on archaeological finds like vases or art. The team partnered with nGRAIN, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in augmented reality, to work through the technological challenges of the iOS version of the app while Engineering Physics undergraduate student Afshin Haidari is working on the Android version.
Back in the Bronze Age
Before the Late Bronze Age the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was mostly isolated. People lived in an egalitarian society and everyone worked to survive. Unlike its nearby neighbours Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia, highly complex societies didn’t develop on Cyprus until about 3,700 years ago.
From 1650 to 1100 B.C., Cyprus suddenly became an important centre of trade and supplier of copper, a resource that was in high demand as the primary ingredient for bronze. As it became more powerful, an elite class emerged and the city of Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios was created, with new housing, tombs and monumental buildings.
“The design of the city aimed at showcasing the power of these elites,” says Fisher. “I try to reconstruct the city and understand these relationships.”
At the archaeological site, visitors see small stone walls only a couple of feet high and some square stones in orderly rows. The trained eye of an archaeologist can tell you that you’re looking at a room at the heart of Cyprus’ international olive oil trade 3,200 years ago. But for the average visitor, it’s difficult to visualize. Fisher has enlisted the help of visual effects artist Lisa McLean to bring the ancient ruins to life.
“Much of the work on the 3D model has been completed from photos and maps of the site from previous excavations,” says McLean. “This summer I had the opportunity to work on the site in Cyprus and obtain more specific photos and measurements. I want to create an accurate and compelling glimpse into the past.”
A new toy and a new research tool
For both the MAGIC lab and the archaeologists, this app is a jumping point. The technology can be reused and revamped to enhance the experience of tourists or for archaeological research.
“We plan to develop the app further so archaeologists can integrate a variety of 3D data and visualize it in a way that can help to better understand the spatial and temporal relationships among the things they find,” says Fisher.
“All of this enhances our ability to bring the past to life and tell the story of how people lived in the past and why archaeological sites are important cultural and educational resources.”