Pixels and Pharaohs: A smart window on the past
First published 29th May 2021
Probably the smelliest place I’ve ever been is the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. It’s a full-on, head-dunk immersion into a Viking world 1,000 years ago, where you walk around this pretend village, looking at all these Viking people in little huts with their chickens and straw and iron pots and things, and the whole place just stinks. But it succeeds at one thing, which is to make you feel for a moment what it might actually have been like to be alive at that point in history.
Most museums aren’t like this. Most most museums are a kind of procession of insanely precious historical artefacts, where you wander around, and in a detached kind of a way study and stare at them, picking up a few facts and chronological titbits along the way. And you’re kept at a safe distance from the objects, obviously, protected as they must be by a piece of rope or glass.
What’s intriguing though is that glass. Because the tech industry is rapidly building out Augmented Reality, the upshot of which is that glass is going to evolve from being merely a transparent material through which you see the world, to a ‘digital window’ that let’s you overlay computer-generated imagery on top of the physical world. You can do it on your phone already, say to try out say a new hairstyle:
So, imagine this: you’re at an exhibition. It’s brimming with with historical artefacts, like the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’, which features 150 ancient Egyptian objects, preserved for more than 3,000 years. The highlight is Tutankhamum’s Golden Throne, discovered in 1922:
You walk through into a new room. You see the throne, in an entirely enclosed space, fronted by a large, heavy glass wall. There’s a few markers, evenly spaced, on the floor in front of the glass. People are standing on them, looking intently, transfixed.
You step up — perhaps a foot from the glass — and peering in under the soft, rich lighting you see the ludicrously opulent, outrageously gold throne, sat there in the room. After a moment, a pause, suddenly the scene transforms. As if by magic, poof!, there’s a hologram, a 3D, live, moving, life-size hologram of Tutankhamum himself. He is sat right there, on the ancient throne. A digital avatar reclining on a corporeal object.
And wow, he’s so young, just a boy. His feet just touching the ground. He looks around, makes a gesture, and another figure enters the room carrying a cane. Offering an arm, he helps Tutankhamum to stand. The boy-king walks, limping a little (you’re surprised to see) across the room…
After a few minutes the scene ends, the imagery fades, and you’re left with just the throne again.
Now that would be some kind of magic, wouldn’t it? To blend the raw physicality of this supremely precious object that’s existed, barely an atom changed, for over 3,000 years, a continuous thread stretching back through time to the pyramids; to blend this with a kinetic, ‘living’, immersive reconstruction of what life in ancient Egypt, in the Pharaoh’s palace, might have been like: what they wore, how they moved. Its a new class of experience in fact, one we don’t even have good words for yet (‘mixed reality’ comes closest).
This is what AR does: it lets you blend and meld the digital and the physical, and we are right now only at the beginning. WayRay, a Swiss company, have demonstrated this form of AR (a glass window rather than AR-glasses that your wear, a la Snap, Facebook and Apple) by creating an overlay in car windscreens, which shows the driver navigation and warnings on the road in front of them. They are now ‘on a mission to create a future where any transparent surface is a window into virtual worlds’.
What a future: say you’re wondering down Oxford Street, perhaps you can stand looking into a shop window and when you air-swipe-right the outfit on the mannequin changes; maybe theatres? What could a theatre director and ‘AR set designer’ do if the stage had a wall of magic-glass at the front? Perhaps one day you’ll be able to look across the Thames through a specially-sited pane of glass and see a whole montage of history before your eyes: Nelson’s funeral, in 1806, with its two-mile procession of boats; the great frosts of 1683–4, which turned the whole river to ice for months and became a temporary market square for the city; perhaps the departure of the Cutty Sark, headed for Shanghai to collect tea-cargo in record time in 1870. The real, physical world, can play now. The possibilities are endless.