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VR technology recreates life on frozen continent

Published: 12 February 2024 at 16:13

A virtual reality image from the Immersive Antarctica exhibition

Walk in the shoes of polar explorers with ARU and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust

Imagine being transported to the southern hemisphere, walking in the shoes of Antarctic explorers, and experiencing the sights and sounds of a frozen continent. 

Well, now it’s a possibility, thanks to a heritage focused Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Anglia Ruskin University’s StoryLab research institute and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), a Cambridge-based charity that helps to preserve and promote the continent’s unique heritage. 

UKAHT’s Lesley Johnston, KTP Research Associate in the project, worked closely with ARU’s StoryLab and the British Antarctic Survey on creating this initial VR (Virtual Reality) project. This collaboration resulted in the development of the newly conceived Immersive Antarctica programme. 

Led by Johnston in the new role as XR (Extended Reality) Producer at UKAHT, this programme is designed to support the charity’s mission to share the incredible stories of Antarctica’s past through the application of modern technologies.

The most sparsely populated place on Earth has a rich heritage of exploration and scientific research, and Immersive Antarctica brings to life Britain’s work on the continent over several decades with a mix of technology, storytelling, archival records and data collected from the Trust’s bases.

On behalf of UKAHT, the KTP development team have created a VR experience based on a 3D digital reconstruction of Stonington Island, back when it was an active geographic surveying base.

This vivid world can be explored using VR headsets, with users guided by the voice of Neil Marsden, who carried out survey work at the base in the 1960s. From arriving by ship, to sledding with dogs, his recorded testimony provides a rich picture of life on the base, thousands of miles from home.

Johnston, supported by StoryLab’s Creative Programmer Christopher Nightingale and the StoryLab team, used gaming software to make an interactive experience from raw data captured by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the field in Antarctica, with input from the British Antarctic Survey’s archive and mapping departments. The team also benefited from the input of ARU’s Faculty of Business and Law.

StoryLab’s Dr Fabrizio Galeazzi, Associate Professor in Heritage and Creative Technologies at ARU and Academic Lead in the KTP project, said:

“The key part for us is the feeling. 

“Feeling part of the story with the main characters, feeling that emotional experience – not just watching it but being part of it and creating a connection with this recreated digital world.”

The project has been funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency, and has received an “outstanding” rating for the quality of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership. Building on the success of Immersive Antarctica, Dr Galeazzi believes there’s enormous potential to develop immersive experiences for a range of different organisations. 

Dr Galeazzi added:

“The creative element is very important for StoryLab because one of our focal points of interest and research lies at the intersection of creative technologies and immersive narratives, and the collaboration between academics and industry – to try to understand how you can deploy this content not just using a VR headset but also via online platforms to increase accessibility of stories and digital content.”

Lesley Johnston, XR Producer with UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, said:

“Antarctica may be a remote continent, but it plays an essential role in the Earth’s climate and holds stories of great human endeavour and scientific advancement that we want to share with the world. The project forms part of our 30th anniversary celebrations and helps make it accessible for everyone.

“Whilst it’s a virtual experience, it allows people to feel they’ve stepped foot in Antarctica and taken something away with them. That is where the power lies.”

Immersive Antarctica goes on display to the Cambridge public for the first time on Wednesday, 21 February, when the Polar Museum on Lensfield Road hosts the hands-on VR experience for visitors.


Image credit: UKAHT and Storylab ARU