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Unlocking the secrets of the Antarctic: the technology helping people to take a trip back in time

Imagine being transported to another world and time, walking in the shoes of Antarctic explorers, and experiencing the sights and sounds of a frozen continent. All this, without ever leaving your armchair.

Bringing unique heritage to life

Simulation of a snowy valley in Antarctica from the Immersive Antarctica Project

VR reconstruction of a valley from the Immersive Antarctica project. Image credit © StoryLab/UKAHT

Well, it’s now a possibility, thanks to a two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership between ARU's StoryLab and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), an organisation which works to preserve and promote the continent’s unique heritage.

The University has been working with UKAHT on the Immersive Antarctica project, which is bringing to life the British work there over several decades.

This most sparsely populated place on Earth has a rich heritage of important exploration and scientific research.

The team has created a virtual reality (VR) experience based around the 3D digital reproduction of a key site called Stonington Island when it was an active geographic surveying base.

VR reconstruction of the interior of the Stonington Base from the Immersive Antarctica project

VR reconstruction of Stonington Base from the Immersive Antarctica project. Image credit © StoryLab/UKAHT

"Antarctica is essential to the world, for our entire climate! And it should be accessible for everyone," says Lesley Johnston from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

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

The project has been supported by expert project partners at ARU’s StoryLab research institute, bringing 3D graphics, archive images, videos and interviews to life with gaming software.

The team also benefited from the input of the University’s Faculty of Business and Law, as well as the British Antarctic Survey archive.

An authentic narrator

Neil Marsden using a VR headset, assisted by Lesley Johnston, in a lecture hall

This vivid world is built to be explored using VR headsets, 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 helps to build up a rich picture of life on the base, thousands of miles away from home.

Appropriately, Neil was one of the first people to give his seal of approval by trying out the VR, listening to his own voice from decades ago (pictured with Lesley Johnston).

An emotional experience

Dr Fabrizio Galeazzi (pictured evaluating the VR experience at ARU's Ruskin Gallery), Associate Professor in Heritage and Creative Technologies at ARU StoryLab, says the result is an immersive experience which brings to life the incredible places and stories.

Fabrizio Galeazzi helping a person use a VR headset at the Ruskin Gallery

"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 twin world."

The project is funded by Innovate UK and has attracted an "outstanding" rating for the quality of its Knowledge Transfer Partnership. Fabrizio believes it can only help to open doors for the ARU team in this emerging sector.

"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."

Where the past meets the future

The team believes there’s enormous potential to develop digital archives of immersive experiences for a wide range of organisations.

Two children using VR equipment in an exhibition space, as two adults look on

This project is due to be taken into schools and museums to evaluate its impact next year after being presented at several international events such as ArcheoVirtual 2023, in Rome (pictured).

The hope is that it will eventually enable a global audience to experience the unique heritage of the Antarctic, no longer just the preserve of a privileged few.

Meanwhile, work to develop the next phase of the Antarctic experience is underway. Lesley and a conservation team set sail for the former base of Detaille over Christmas, to capture a 3D model for the next VR creation of this frozen wonderland.

See also

New project will bring Antarctic heritage to life