Enhancing artworks using Augmented and Virtual Reality: the “Ara As It Was” project
The “ARa As It Was” (L’ARa com’era) project, promoted by the City of Rome (Roma Capitale), Department of Cultural Growth - Capitolina Superintendency of Cultural Heritage, was organised by Zètema Culture Project and assigned to ETT SpA. This is the first time a work of art has been systematically enhanced using Augmented and Virtual Reality. The subject is one of the most important Roman monuments, Ara Pacis. The monument is dedicated to the Roman goddess of Peace, honouring the Augustan peace brought to Spain and Gaul. It was commissioned by the Roman Senate between 13 and 9 BC and built on the Via Lata (now Via del Corso), becoming part of the great Augustan development project for the northern part of Campus Martius. ETT designed a project that would retrace the monument’s history, permitting the Ara relief panels to regain their original splendour while visitors look on. The symbolic meanings of the decoration and narrative friezes are revealed, using emotional storytelling techniques to take visitors back in time and relive the glory of ancient Rome. The project was designed for evening visits, from 8 pm until midnight. Booked groups of 20-25 people at a time can walk round the monument. An average visit lasts about 45 minutes and is available in Italian, English, French, Spanish and German. Each visitor receives a Samsung Gear VR viewer and this, when linked to a Samsung S7 smartphone, shows Virtual Reality content as well as points of interest in Augmented Reality. ETT utilised a 3D tracking system on this project, making use of the most advanced computer vision algorithms. The entire AR system recognises three-dimensional bas-reliefs and carries out real-time tracking. This recognition system “anchors” the overlay to the real surface, increasing the effectiveness of this immersive experience. This is done by showing the phone camera image on the viewer and then combining real objects with virtual elements. This colour restoration technology, although theoretical, gets as close as is possible to the original hues. It makes the most of the results of studies and experiments, carried out on the marble of the monument over a period of more than ten years, by the Capitolina Superintendency of Cultural Heritage. Visitors can get the most from viewer content and the narrative by Luca Ward and Manuela Mandracchia. On the way round the monument, effects and information are provided when the viewer is aimed at the carvings and decorations. Very few monuments have been as able as Ara Pacis to transmit the history, beliefs, ideals and ambitions of an entire era. The relief panels depicting the sacrifice of Aeneas, and those showing the birth of Romulus and Remus, personalities, gestures, gods and animals, illustrate the origins of Rome and the family of Augustus. By observing the various restorations on the slabs displaying priests turned towards the Tiber, we can trace the complex events the monument has suffered in modern times, from its discovery in the sixteenth century, its removal to Florence and the recomposition of all the fragments shortly before World War II. While continuing the visit, Tellus, the goddess of prosperity, and the goddess Roma, sitting on the weapons of the defeated, lead us to reflect on how the world was transformed by the Augustan peace. It is here that colour plays an important part in the narrative. Together with the spoken commentary, colours eloquently highlight the functions and meanings of the characters and objects shown. The colouring of the panel under the image of the goddess Roma shows the orderly and lush natural surroundings of the beautiful floral frieze, inhabited by animals and insects. This is typical of ancient Rome; lush gardens were an invitation to forget the horrors of war. At the end of the tour around the monument, the image of Augustus and his family can be seen on the processional frieze, among augurs, lictors and priests. This solemn procession accompanies the Emperor, surrounding and protecting him, while he performs a sacred gesture. It is not just a simple representation of a State ritual. The image shows Rome, at that time and in the future, through its institutional life. Augustus and his family, including children, are shown together for the first time in the history of a public monument. ETT SpA has used augmented and virtual reality to give visitors a new experience; one that supplies in-depth knowledge of history and of the meaning of the carvings. Awareness is increased while contemplating the monument, which, by celebrating the Emperor Augustus and his family, underlines the predestination of Octavian command and the return of a wonderful and mythical golden age, thanks to his work of pacification. However, in order not to turn an encounter with this treasure of the past, Ara Pacis, into a mere technological experience, immersive multimedia content has been distributed over differing perception levels. In this way, various senses are used for normal visual observation and contact, undisturbed by technology. These viewers, in fact, permit a hybrid approach to the monument, enhancing the personal aspect of the visit. Virtual and augmented reality are only available at selected areas or points of interest and visitors may choose whether to use their viewers or observe the Ara with the naked eye, helping them to absorb what they have learnt from the multimedia content. In the three-month period following the opening, there were more than 11,000 visitors, even though it was only open on Friday and Saturday evenings. Customer-satisfaction questionnaire surveys, personal interviews and social channel feedback analysis have all given excellent results, with 95% satisfied users. This important result led to additional investment, improving the user experience and enhancing other content aspects concerning the monument and the Augustan era. Two new Virtual Reality points of interest were added on 20th January, together with live film shows, 3D reconstructions and computer graphics. This combination of features tells the Ara Pacis story in a new way, taking visitors to the northern part of ancient Campus Martius, where they watch the first Virtual Reality reconstruction of a Roman sacrifice. This attraction enriches the story by making deep emotional impact on the audience. Visitors are catapulted back into the past where, from a privileged position, they are immersed in a 360-degree flight over Campus Martius – as it was 2,000 years ago. It is a captivating experience, helping visitors understand not only the original aspect and function of the altar, but also see the changes to northern Campo Marzio, the area in Rome chosen by Augustus to celebrate his power. The visit has 9 points of interest (POI). POIs 1 and 2 are a combination of videos, virtual reality and immersive technologies, and are the main novelty. Vistors, wearing Samsung Gear VR viewers, are greeted with 360-degree views of today’s Ara Pacis, only to find themselves enfolded in a white space where the monument can be seen in its original colours. Augustus is the special guide on this journey of discovery of the Campus Martius. After listening to details of the various monuments, visitors see an aerial 3D reconstruction of Campus Marzius and are taken to the area where the Pantheon, the Saepta Julia, the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Aqueduct can be seen in all their magnificence. After this emotional flight, Augustus accompanies visitors to the front of the coloured Ara Pacis, where a sacrifice is taking place, all in 3D computer graphics and with the help of real actors. When the sacrifice is over, viewers return to reality and continue their visit to discover more about Ara Pacis (POIs 3 to 9). From 21st April to 31st October 2017, the “ARa As It Was” (L’ARa com’era) tour may be visited not only during booking weekend visits, but every evening from 8 pm to midnight (last entry at 11 pm). Feedback is enthusiastic, encouraging us to continue in the use of cutting-edge technologies, helping progress in the enhancement of the tremendous knowledge that our cultural heritage can bring us.

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