An interview with VISTA AR team members: Laura Dixon, Project Manager, and Florence Menu, Project Coordinator.
Describe VISTA AR project and the challenges you sought to address through this project?
When the project was written back in 2015-2016, a challenge was identified to increase not just the revenue but the numbers and different types of visitors at cultural heritage sites.
Our principal investigator for VISTA AR, Professor Andi Smart, who specialises in Business Model Innovation, was interested in exploring Text Analysis (a machine learning technique to extract valuable insights from text data) to gain a deeper understanding of visitor experience.
Vista AR addresses this challenge through introducing new technologies, and specifically augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), to small and medium cultural heritage sites, that would not otherwise have had the budget or resources to use them.
We provide resources and tools to help them innovate their visitor experience through exploiting visitor analysis data and new technologies, and to in turn help boost and widen visitor interest and support sustainable growth in the heritage tourism sector. We’ve produced a free interactive workbook: Business Model Innovation tool for Cultural Heritage Sites using Immersive Technology, to support this objective.
What are the main VISTA AR outputs?
VISTA AR produces two types of digital products hosted on cloud systems to ensure access by the widest group of stakeholders and to promote scalability: Visitor Intelligence (VI) tools gathered on a VI Dashboard (VI Cloud) and Augmented & Reality solutions (AR/VR Cloud).
The Visitor Intelligence tools provide critical information to aid Business Model Innovation, including the identification of target groups, digital interpretation, and monetisation opportunities.
Four types of immersive solutions using headsets for VR experiences, tablets, furniture to visualise the AR, and an immersive room have been developed at key partners Fougères Castle and Exeter Cathedral, as well as at deployment sites, such as the National Trust Tin coast site. Each AR and VR interpretation includes advanced digital models and animations to deliver new experiences to target groups. For example, a stone model has been created for Fougères Castle and a model of the Botallack landscape for the National Trust Tin Coast site.
While generic models and animations have been produced and uploaded to a library for other cultural sites to use. More information about our experimentation and deployment sites is available here: Deployment and project progress - Vista-AR.
What are some of the advantages and challenges that come from using digital technology in cultural and heritage tourism?
Using digital technology can be beneficial in terms of sustainability. If a site invests in immersive technology such as tablets, the device will last for several years and it could be used for a variety of reasons and adapted in the future for other experiences, for instance a tablet-based audio-visual tour.
Moreover, since the pandemic, a lot of people are getting more and more used to doing things online, on tablets and PCs. These immersive technologies can also be available offline if people have the VR headset equipment. So, in case of another lockdown, on top of the online experiences you could make this offer available to people who could download it at home.
One of the challenges could be to make sure that the staff on site have got the technical backup that they need, with manuals, guidance, and trainings.
Operating the VR could also be quite scary during a pandemic. But one thing we have done is to purchase a ‘Cleanbox’, which uses UVC rays to effectively sanitise headsets in front of the next visitor and hopefully it will increase consumer confidence. It’s good practice, pandemic or no pandemic.
There is also the challenge of obsolescence because new technologies need updating. If you’re making this part of your business model, you need to be prepared for that financially and on a practical level.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact your project and what steps, if any, did you take to adapt?
We had to be reactive as things have evolved, changing our objectives slightly and looking into different questions.
We have had to adapt to bringing things online, while at the same time think about how we enhance what the sites have to offer. It’s a cross-border project that was built on the premise of collaboration with different teams working on both sides of the channel. And many of the cultural heritage sites closed for much of the last 18 months, so that’s been a challenge.
Rather than focusing on increasing visitor numbers, we had to start looking more at the intention to visit and ask visitors if they would be more likely to come if a site has got AR and VR technologies. Asking questions, such as: would it be worth it for sites to get these new technologies if they were again in a situation where they couldn’t open? What is the mileage in encouraging people who can’t physically visit sites to try these new experiences?
We adapted by creating 6 online experiences including the 3D virtual choir at Exeter Cathedral and an immersive history experience at Château de Fougères. We are continuing to gather feedback from the public. Also, we’re still encouraging people to try out our experiences and complete our surveys.
What are the next steps for your project?
What we will be doing at this point is looking at how we will roll out the commercialisation of the technology, the access to the library and the visitor intelligence, with a view to offering it to organisations in exchange for a licence fee.* We’re going to try and produce something adaptable that can benefit cultural heritage sites beyond the end of the project by investing in things which will hopefully carry on, keeping up with our contacts.
We would ideally end up with a solution that can be used for research and that can be taken on by anybody to meet future needs. It would be great to see how what we’ve created could potentially provide an answer to some of the issues that have been thrown up by the pandemic as we are yet to know all its long-term impacts on the tourism sector.
Those technologies could be an answer, they could bring more accessibility to culture in times when sites are closed. How people access cultural heritage sites from a distance or via a PC; this could very well be the future. In the years ahead, even without a physical presence, a site could continue to share assets digitally with people. We need to be reactive to current changes.
*Commercialisation of the technology is subject to compliance with the EU Regulations related to the funding.