Archaeology Ex Machina: employing virtual reality technology to enhance archaeological landscape investigation.


Archaeology Ex Machina is a PhD project designed to explore how games industry software and hardware can be utilised to enhance landscape investigation using Virtual Reality.

The concept is fairly simple: Using Unreal Engine 4 a user will be able to use VR hardware to explore landscape data, both in a top down approach as well as an “in-person” approach. Use of VR in archaeology is not new however most applications have been for public presentation and dissemination. This project aims to take this concept further and investigate its application to and enhancement of archaeological research.

This project is currently being undertaken as part of a PhD at the University of Kent and has entered its 3rd and final year. 

Further info can be found here: ResearchGate Project Page 

Just Pretty Pictures?

Getting Technical

So what is the point of all this? Am I just engaged on making pretty images for public consumption?

This is a subject I will be covering at some length in my thesis as its an issue I feel we’re glossing over somewhat in archaeology. Creating 3D models of objects and landscapes is certainly in vogue at the moment, and every unit or department has someone doing it somewhere. The specific issue however is what are we doing with all this new information? Does it serve a purpose or are we merely creating these things to dangle in front of the general public and stand back as it briefly becomes a hot topic?

This is a subject that I touched on in my masters dissertation where I attempted to push the envelope out beyond merely making a pretty 3D model and create something that can actually be useful or would have purpose. My main concern is that of storage more than anything else. We are in danger of being swamped by a deluge of images, 3D models of sites and artefacts that all need digital curation lest they be rendered obsolete by storage media failure or software and hardware advances.

My project is not immune from this at all and I am well aware that I am just as guilty of creating gigabytes of new data that needs to be looked after to some degree. The difference is that I am not simply creating data for the sake of it. There is a purpose and an end goal, that of experiential dissemination and investigation. Once that is done and the hardware has moved on, I expect the data and software to die a digital death but the ideas, and thoughts it generates would (hopefully) live on in another form. 

 

Given the incredibly fast pace of developing technology, it was decided early on to pick one particular set of hardware and stick with it for the duration of the project. While this might mean that the hardware could be dated at the end of the 3 year project, it would eliminate any “feature creep” where new features would constantly be added and would limit actual progress.

Although unexpected at the start, this has also been true of the software engine version used however newer version of the Unreal Engine have enabled extended features, especially with VR and thus the project is currently set with version 4.22.3 (although current bugs in the system are waiting to be resolved in 4.23 and so a migration is likely before release). 

The hardware being used to develop this is as follows:

  • Windows Mixed Reality system by Acer – This allows a degree of ease of use (requiring no base stations to set up) as well as belonging to the more affordable VR solutions group. As the project is SteamVR enabled, it also means that any major VR system (such as HTC Vive or Oculus Rift) will be compatible.
  • A PC with an Intel Core i7-8750H CPU, 32GB RAM and an 8GB Nvidia GTX1070 graphics card.

While these specs are fairly high, its not envisaged that a general release of the software will be part of the project, but a post project consideration, whereby the software will be optimised for various hardware configurations. 

The HTC Vive sporting its very cyberpunk looks

VALT - Virtualised Archaeological Landscape Toolset

The software component of this project is the creation of VALT – Virtualised Archaeological Landscape Toolset. The original vision of this software was to have a framework into which landscapes created using Lidar landscape data could be inserted and investigated using the toolset. As it turns out this is far trickier to do than originally envisaged and a lot of processing and manipulation is required to allow the software to display the landscapes with the tools available and with VR hardware display in mind. However it is certainly not impossible and with time, development tools could be created to speed up this process. Therefore VALT system remains open to new landscape insertion and use. Below is a promo video of one of my case study sites, Big Howe near Stenness, Orkney, and shows the visuals capable with the Unreal Engine. Note that visually the engine can produce far more detailed and realistic results, but in order to allow for VR usage, a lot of these techniques have been disabled to allow for a smooth experience with VR.

 For those interested, the reason many visual effects are harder to produce with a VR system is due to the hardware essentially having to render each frame of the game twice, once for each eye.  This puts twice the load on the system and can significantly affect frame rate. Unreal Engine has various tricks to mitigate this performance drop but in the end it was decided to aim for the smoothest experience possible.