Archaeologists replace the trowel with the joystick

An archaeologist recreated a 6,000-year-old site all in digital images. So far, nothing new. But with the addition of a joystick and a 3D interface this has made possible unprecedented immersive exploration.


An archaeologist recreated a 6,000-year-old site all in digital images. So far, nothing new. But with the addition of a joystick and a 3D interface this has made possible unprecedented immersive exploration.

You picture him in your head, right? A Fedora tight on his head. A small bag filled with sand in his right hand. His left hand slowly reaching for a golden idol. A few seconds later, there he is, running for his life as he is chased by a giant boulder, jumping out from the crumbing  ruins, and then casually strolling into his class to  teach archaeology to undergrad students.

Ok, let’s get real. Archaeology is nothing like that.

We’re on a gamification blog. So perhaps something like this will come to mind:

Quack shot

Well, still not it. We will be talking about real archaeological research from the reality world. But using methods derived from video game technologies.


Beyond a simple digitalization

Gamification is (too) often presented as a motivation tool. The carrot you dangle in front of a 30-year-old customer who will be more excited and eager to use your product if you put him in a Mario Kart-like ranking.

However, using principles, methods or tools from the gaming industry can also help solve big issues for mankind. In our post about serious games we told you about one such instance when people without any specialized training succeeded where science had been stuck for 15 years!

In the field of archaeology, digitalization has already been in use for a long time to recreate environments that disappeared long ago. Or threatened historic artefacts and sites like in Palmyra, Syria (for which a 3D replica will soon be built!) What we’re less accustomed to is the use of a joystick and motion sensors to explore them, just like with a Wii.


The cairn of Carn

On the island of Carn, in Brittany, France, there is a cairn dated 4,000 years before Christ. It is a dome-shaped pile of stones used as a burial site.


The cairn of Carn is indeed less fancy or impressive than a Pharao’s pyramid, but it’s 2,000 years older! (Image : Uuetenava, Creative Commons)

The site was restored in the 1960’s and what remains from the original structure is only a single chamber. So this is what Florian Cousseau, archaeologist and PhD student at the University of Rennes, chose as the focus of her research. Very dark and in danger of collapsing, the chamber was reconstructed in 3D to allow its safe study.

But at Immersia, the virtual reality platform, engineers went even further.
Research made all comfy and cozy

Just don your slippers and goggles, grab a joystick, and dive into a virtual world.

Except that here, instead of slumping on the couch, you get on a kind of stage surrounded by gigantic glass screens. A platform unrivalled in its dimensions!


Less sexy than the Temple of Doom but no risk of having your heart ripped out. (Image : CNPAO)

The eyeglasses have built-in sensors linked to a camera that tracks head movement and changes the field of view accordingly.  The joystick allows you to interact with the environment. Our archaeologist, for example, uses it as a torch lamp to light up certain parts of the walls.

Halfway between the Wii and the Occulus Rift, this system enabled the researcher to bring to light an interesting detail: the stones are arranged according to a particular color pattern. Darker at the base of the wall, they get lighter up towards the ceiling.

Was this meant to represent the elevation of the soul from the world of the dead (dark) to the sky and the world of gods (light)? This interpretation can as yet not be confirmed. But it would have been much harder to even notice it in the original chamber.

And this example shows how much video games technology can inspire various domains!
It’s not about implementing theoretical mechanisms of gamification, per se, but a concrete application of game-based technologies.

The Immersia VR platform has also been used to reconstruct a Roman villa that you can tour and explore as if you were there. For a museum, this might open up previously unimagined possibilities – attracting a new kind of audience or even using it to create an actual gamified environment.



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