CityEngine and the potentials for visualising heritage

Visualising archaeological material is advancing at an alarming rate. The staggering profusion and increasingly affordability of 3D printers means that many people can own one or build their own, and potentially create their own museum. Like many people, I have a fringe interest in video games. Unlike many people, I am eager to become a developer (albeit at the hobbyist level) of interactive applications. 3D printing shows that the technology exists to accurately represent portable artefacts in 3D and accurate to 20 microns.

But what about something larger?

3D scanners have been employed to recreate the famous paleolithic caves at Lascaux to millimeter detail. The result is astonishing. But what about something even larger?

Anything bigger moves from the realms of laser scanning and 3D printing and into the realms of geographic information systems. Specifically, ESRI’s CityEngine software. While much of the tutorial content for the software relates to its use in modern applications such as the planning policy and the impact of construction in the urban environment, there are archaeological applications for large-scale representation. One such pioneering project is RomeLab. The description of the project in their own words:

RomeLab is a multi-disciplinary research group whose work uses the physical and virtual city of Rome as a point of departure to study the interrelationship between historical phenomena and the spaces and places of the ancient city. Using gaming technology, we created virtual worlds which are used in the classroom and in research experiments.

The increasing accessibility of powerful tools from both the geographic information side and the 3D games universe are converging to make this a really exciting time to work in archaeological landscapes. Software such as Unity3D, the Unreal Development Kit, and Cryengine are but a few of the potential engines to drive immersive archaeological landscapes forward. Perhaps with the assistance of consumer-grade virtual reality (VR) headsets such as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Re Vive and others will allow archaeological and heritage professionals to really assess the impact of the built environment both visually and in moving through the space. An example of the relevance to my own work is being able to visualise the Roman town of Noviomagus Regnensium (now Chichester) based on the 50+ years of reasonably well documented excavations conducted within the walled area of the town. By using this ‘certain’ data as a point of the departure, a model can then be built based upon qualifiable levels of certainty and thereby be able to withstand the scrutiny all academic work must endure.

Finally, there has been a huge push in making archaeological data open to the public. The potential impact of open spatial data such as OpenStreetMap and archaeologists making their data open to heritage organisations such as museums is huge. By embracing novel approaches archaeologist and museum professionals can demonstrate the relevance of their work by engaging the public imagination in a past that they are better able to feel. If we make individuals and communities feel more strongly that the past was a real place, there is a better chance that they will care about and for it.