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2.3. Case Study 2. The virtual museum of the Ancient Flaminia

Like the Western Han Dynasty Virtual Museum, The Virtual Museum of the Ancient Flaminia (Forte 2008; Dell'Unto et al. 2007) was aimed at the 3D documentation of sites and monuments along the ancient Flaminia Road, using integrated technologies for their long-term preservation as well as the development of a virtual-reality environment that would allow access and understanding of these sites for the general public. The circumstances of the project were also similar: the public institutions involved welcomed the opportunity to test the use of innovative digital tools in their daily documentation practice, and in both situations we dealt with the post-excavation documentation of the archaeological context. This project was first developed for public access in 2008 thanks to a multi-user virtual reality stereo installation specifically designed to be integrated in the visitor experience of the Diocletian Baths in the National Museum of Rome (Figure 4). A multi-disciplinary team of archaeologists, art historians, computer scientists, architects and cultural heritage specialists worked on the optimisation of the 3D reproductions and reconstruction of the sites for their integration into a complex 3D real-time application developed using Virtools, a game development environment software (now 3DVIA Virtools).

A digital protocol was developed to preserve all the data acquired during the project and related metadata in a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary virtual environment. To manage the fragmentary nature of the archaeological remains along the Flaminia Road, the result of recent urban development, archaeological evidence was re-contextualised within a virtual environment with three main levels of visualisation:

The users can navigate the virtual environment by walking between and interacting with the 3D virtual reproductions of the sites and monuments.

In the multi-user virtual environment developed for the National Museum of Rome's Diocletian Baths, the users, represented by avatars, could meet and interact in the virtual space and co-operate in the creation of common narratives. The application was characterised by four interactive mono display platforms where visitors could interact with the application (i.e. one visitor per display). A larger HD stereo display screen allowed other visitors to have a real-time 3D stereo visualisation of the narratives developed by the four users inside the virtual scenario with related information and video material. The users interact with a space made 'alive' through a virtual storytelling of metaphors, virtual characters, and both floating and learning objects (Pietroni and Rufa 2008).

Figure 4
Figure 4: Virtual Museum of the Ancient Flaminia: multi-user virtual reality stereo installation (from Pietroni and Rufa 2008)

Following the creation of the platform, in 2006 Dassault Systèmes acquired Virtools, resulting in a change in the commercial policy of the company. This fact, combined with the availability of more innovative and powerful 3D technologies and software, encouraged the developers of the Virtual Museum of the Ancient Flaminia to build a new application, which re-used the data and information developed in the original project. This new initiative, entitled Livia's Villa Reloaded (Pietroni et al. 2015), involved the development of a virtual-reality application in Unity 3, which uses mid-air, gesture-based interaction and combines different media and languages (real-time exploration, cinematographic paradigms, virtual set practices). The application was opened to the public in the same location as the original one, the National Museum of Rome's Diocletian Baths (Figure 4). Livia's Villa Reloaded (Figure 5) re-used the 3D models of the first Livia's Villa project without the need for any major reworking. The porting of the models in Unity 3 and the reorganisation of the original database resources required two months of work from a digital archaeology specialist with specific expertise in 3D data modelling and optimisation. The new platform was developed in six months, involving four researchers (see Table 1 for additional information on the time required for the migration of the data and the implementation of the new application).

Table 1: Time required for the migration of the data and the implementation of Livia's Villa Reloaded
TasksTimeNo.people
Creation of the Digital Terrain model(DTM)1 Week1 (digital archaeology specialist/3D data modelling)
Porting of the models in Unity 3 and reorganisation of the original database resources8 weeks1 (digital archaeology specialist/3D data modelling and optimisation)
Creation of camera animation in 3D Studio Max then imported in Unity 32 weeks1 (digital archaeology specialist/3D data modelling)
Light mapping, scene editing, and rendering effects in Unity 33 weeks1 (computer scientist)
Software development in Unity 34 weeks1 (digital archaeology specialist/3D data modelling)

The main differences between the two projects rely on the infrastructures, as well as on lighting and rendering effects, which considerably affected the final visual outcome of the reconstructed landscape and architecture. Considerable improvements in real-time rendering were achieved in the new application compared to the 2008 experience. In this new application the use of 'Lightmapping' calculation and Colour Correction Image Effect (provided in the new graphics engine) gave rich colour tones to the virtual environment, thereby creating a more evocative atmosphere. Users can interact with the reconstructed environment using simple and natural gestures of the body. Here the use of mid-air, gesture-based, interaction allowed this project to overcome the limitations of the traditional input interfaces and devices based on the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing devices) paradigm, where the visitors struggle with interfaces that are not immediate and simple to use for all users, such as a mouse, joystick, keyboard, or console. The Livia's Villa Reloaded gesture-based application was developed using Microsoft Kinect (Microsoft 2015) first generation, which does not require the user to wear any marker or need expensive licences to operate (Pietroni et al. 2015, 502–503). The application, implemented using Unity 3D, allows the visitor to navigate (using the hotspots 'GO FORWARD' and 'STOP AND ROTATE') and interact with the system via a main menu (hotspot 'MENU') that allows users to select both language (Italian or English) and scenarios:

Livia's Villa Reloaded is a good example of both the re-use of datasets and the application of natural interaction as a new way of reconfiguring and reconsidering the boundaries between 'real' and 'virtual' worlds. Natural interaction can increase embodiment, thus enhancing communication between the public and all artificial entities present in the virtual space.

Figure 5: Livia's villa reloaded from Claudio Rufa, E.V.O.CA on Vimeo.

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