A flight over the Colonies

BACKGROUND

In 2018, the Colonies of Benevolence will have been in existence for 200 years. 2018 is also the year in which the Colonies may collectively obtain recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout their joint history, hundreds of thousands of vagrants were placed in the Colonies in the hopes of returning them to the straight and narrow path through good hard work outdoors. Since Belgian independence was declared in 1830, the Belgian and Dutch Colonies experienced separate historical trajectories and development. In 1993, the Law to curb vagrancy and beggary was definitely abolished in Belgium and the remaining vagrants were free to go. The Wortel and Merksplas Colonies quickly became deserted. This also eliminated the workers who had maintained the domains for decades. More than 1000ha of unique domain lands were at risk of being lost forever as landscape heritage. The domains form an exceptional composition of agricultural land, nature and cultural heritage, in which recreation has become an important new function.

In the Large farm of Merksplas Colony - where up to 5000 vagrants worked simultaneously - a visitor centre opened on 2 June 2017 called ‘Colony 5-7’. The entire history of the 7 Colonies of Benevolence and, in particular, of the two Belgian Colonies, is portrayed in an interactive way. The name of the visitor centre refers to the two Belgian Colonies, which were founded as the fifth (Wortel) and the seventh (Merksplas) in the series of 7 Colonies of Benevolence. The two Colonies on Belgian soil have also experienced a turbulent past. Tens of thousands of vagrants have left their mark on the landscape. The visitor centre presents the vagrants' stories, all aspects of the large-scale organisation of the Colonies, a wealth of historical archive material in contemporary digital presentations, the architectural features of the remaining heritage, facts about current natural values, tourism opportunities and much more.

The objective of visitor centre Colony 5-7 is to show visitors what can be explored in this landscape and inspire them to then set out to experience the landscape for themselves. The 'Flight over the Colonies' plays an important role in this respect. With this module, visitors can truly experience how large, extensive and unique these landscapes are and find out about everything there is to be explored. The 'Flight over the Colonies' offers a perspective that visitors cannot experience on the ground, making it a unique addition to a visit to the Colonies.

OBJECTIVE

The objective of issuing this assignment was to create an interactive experience that helps visitors to the visitor centre to get acquainted with the full scope of the heritage landscapes of the Wortel and Merksplas Colonies. This experience should let visitors see those aspects of the landscape that make the Colonies unique as a landscape and realise the vastness of the landscape, which is not easy to fully take in on the ground.

In addition, this arrangement should encourage visitors to set out on their own to explore these peculiar landscapes for themselves, to search for beautiful places they encountered during their 'Flight over the Colonies'. It was important therefore, that the visitors understand the link between the impressive images and the concrete information about what they are seeing in the pictures, how to get there by bike, hiking, etc.

IMPLEMENTATION

To achieve this objective, an additional module has been added to the visitor centre. Following the history of the Colonies, the visitors to the visitor centre will be shown the "Flight over the Colonies" module. 59 interesting places in the 2 Belgian colonies can be 'visited', along with the necessary explanation.

Production of the 'Flight over the Colonies' module was a real feat of determination. Little Planet / 360° Imagery created an application consisting of 99 high resolution panoramic images (each 50MP, or 10000x5000px). These images were linked to hundreds of hotspots. The aerial images were taken with a specialised 360˚ drone camera + software, with highly detailed photographs as the end result.   The application is displayed on a 40-inch 4K touchscreen, and includes 2.5 GB of footage. The viewer navigates through the landscape and selects which parts of the landscape to focus on, depending on his/her own interest. In this way, this concept provides visitors with an immersive experience.

The navigation between locations is done via the overview map of the relevant Colony or by clicking on the next POI. These POIs are displayed on the 360° images with a cloud icon (click on the next aerial image) or a pointer icon (click on the next ground image). The features used include 360° navigation, zooming in, zooming out, call text, switching to the other Colony and disabling the menu bar to enjoy the impressive images even more. Information on the existing hiking and cycling nodes network is also included in the module. Visitors can thus chart their own trek through the Colonies while using the module.

The module's operation has been kept very simple intentionally. Visitors of all ages can use the module. The module is wheelchair accessible so that wheelchair users can also use it. The module is available in Dutch, French, English and German. We are ready to receive people from everywhere on earth if the Colonies of Benevolence are awarded the recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018.

RESULT

Through the 'Flight over the Colonies' the viewers get a good impression of the various landscape features and functions of the Wortel and Merksplas Colonies: nature, agriculture, heritage and recreational opportunities all combined. Like no other instrument, the virtual tour can demonstrate the inseparable correlation between these components within the Colonies in a clear and original way. Navigating through the landscape gives visitors a good view of the size of the area and the unique tidy patterns of the alleys, agricultural areas, forests, heaths and the heritage embodied in the buildings.

The 'Flight over the Colonies' can be found in the visitor centre 'Colony 5-7' in Merksplas Colony and, together with the rest of the visitor centre, has been open to the public since 2 June.