Bring history to life with 3D technology during lockdown

Here’s how 3D technology and virtual reality could be one exciting way to bring remote learning to life


Name: Graham Hunter

Job title: CEO of handheld mobile mapping and monitoring specialists GeoSLAM

LinkedIn: @geoslam

Bring history to life with 3D technology during lockdown
Graham Hunter is CEO of handheld mobile mapping and monitoring specialists GeoSLAM

As lockdown continues to affect families across the world, teachers and schools have been incredibly innovative in how they manage to support home-schooling efforts in an interesting, engaging way.

Here in the UK, some restrictions may be easing but the country-wide discrepancies between age groups returning or parents willing to send their children back has meant that disruption in day-to-day learning is likely to continue for some months yet.

Find me a parent who hasn’t struggled to tear their children away from screens during lockdown. In some ways, how could we blame them?

… teachers have had to look for new and unconventional ways to keep children progressing and growing

Technology is a way kids can catch up with their friends and connect with the world outside while we’re not allowed to explore it in person.

Innovative learning

These are unusual times and though many would argue a global pandemic doesn’t allow the best conditions to encourage learning, our teachers have had to look for new and unconventional ways to keep children progressing and growing.

One example is with public events to inspire learning, such as VE Day or Armed Forces Day (formerly Veterans’ Day), which is likely to be celebrated in a low-key fashion this year. On 27 June it is an opportunity to commemorate the service of men and women in the British Armed Forces.

Special days of celebration and anniversaries of historical moments have always been a great inspiration for educators to demonstrate relevance and impact of their lessons, and in history this is especially prevalent.

Bringing history to life through 3D technology

Embracing technology alongside history, then, could be an incredibly useful way to bring the subject to life.

The First World War, now over 100 years ago, was a pivotal moment of recent history. But how can teachers help pupils understand how those events, and other significant moments throughout history, felt?

Our museums and classrooms may be limited at present but, pre-lockdown, Virginia Tech University in the US developed one way for individuals to experience what it was really like in the trenches.

The Creative Technologies at the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech is a course that focuses on creative practice at the intersections of digital technology and artistic exploration.

… an immersive simulation enables participants to experience a World War I battlefield

The team there has created virtual tours of the tunnels of the First World War, through an immersive simulation that enables participants to experience a World War I battlefield with their senses of sight, hearing and touch.

Students at School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech can feel what it was like to be in the WW1 trenches through an immersive 3D experience

This sounds futuristic but for a generation which is comfortable with immersive computer games and mobile technology applying this to learning is not such a stretch.

Originally created for museum goers and history students, the Virginia Tech project is able to bring the reality of war to life while providing an escape from the current day’s COVID-19 crisis.

The Virginia Tech project is able to bring the reality of war to life

The simulation recreates the tunnels beneath the village of Vauquois in France where French and German troops mined beneath each other’s positions and detonated explosives in the First World War. Almost entirely destroyed, the village is now a series of craters, trenches and sections of preserved tunnels.

Vauquois tells a unique story of tunnel warfare in World War I, and pre-lockdown participants would be able to crawl through the physical tunnel wearing the VR goggles and reach out and touch real things.

Today, such experiences are likely to be confined to headsets and interactive visualisations on screen – but the possibilities of 3D mobile mapping and, in particular, SLAM technology remain strong.

The tech behind the experience

For Virginia Tech’s project, the simulation combines a digital Virtual Reality (VR) environment with a life-sized physical model created from 3D scan data captured with Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) technology.

The Creative Technologies team had won a grant to develop the immersive technique, but to develop the experience, the first thing that was needed was scans of the tunnels.

Traditional stationary laser scanners would take too long to negotiate and repeatedly set up in the cramped tunnels, so the team obtained a GeoSLAM handheld ZEB-HORIZON mobile device, which turned their project around.

To find out more about the Virginia Tech project, watch the above video

The handheld ZEB-HORIZON laser scanner allows users to map interior and exterior spaces in 3D at walking speed. The lightweight device captures up to 300,000 points per second with an accuracy of 1-3 centimetres up to 100 metres from the user. Whereas large multi-room buildings that might take days to scan with a stationary scanner, they can be mapped in a few hours with the ZEB-HORIZON.

Once scanned, the data is run through GeoSLAM Hub software, which enables users to process, view, merge, edit and create 2D floor plans, CAD drawings and 3D building information models (BIMs) within minutes of data capture.

Future opportunities

It is this original scan data which has made the whole project possible. By definition, it therefore means other sites of special educational significance which have also been scanned with SLAM technology (Arc de Triomphe, the Lincoln Memorial and Sydney Opera House, to name a few) could be transformed into interactive virtual reality experiences, too.

As lockdown continues and teachers look for new ways to engage their classes, perhaps there is an opportunity for those in conservation and heritage positions. By releasing existing scan data of their sites, external teams such as the Virginia Tech Creative Technologies group could recreate the experience from home.

A digital 3D model would never exactly mimic the experience of visiting those locations in person, but they are the closest we have to bringing such environments and their historical significance to life right now.

So, this is a development I welcome and I hope that it makes a difference, however small, to the ongoing education of our young people during these unprecedented times.

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