Virtual Roman Leicester – Dusting Off an Old Project

We thought we’d pull this one out of the archive because it contrasts well with the visualization work in the last post. In 2009 the Digital Building heritage group was commissioned to produce a complete digital reconstruction of Roman Leicester in the year 210AD. Its purpose was to allow a real-time exploration of the Roman city using a joystick to navigate around. This required a completely different approach to that used in pre-recorded fly-through animations which are heavy on geometric detail but consequently take a long time to render and are just like watching a film. For Virtual Roman Leicester we used games engine technology, in this case the Unity games engine as the vehicle for allowing real-time interaction, so the user could decide where they would like to go and what they would like to see. For some applications this is far more important than having a pre-recorded video so was an important capability to get up to speed on. A number of CAD and graphics programs were used to create the 3D geometries of the buildings and then the texture maps to cover them in order to make them look real. A texture map is just a 2D or 2.5D image pasted on to a wire-frame digital model. In this kind of work it’s the texture maps that are really vital as they create the illusion of 3D detail while the geometry of the buildings is kept geometrically simple to reduce the computation required as you walk around inside the reconstruction. Some would say that it’s “smoke and mirrors” and in a sense this is true but it serves a useful purpose for this kind of work and has particular and appropriate applications on mobile devices where computational power is relatively limited. One of the really tough jobs in this kind of work is simulating grime and dirt, it requires considerable artistic talent to create authentic grubbiness! The finished version of Virtual Roman Leicester was first shown at the opening of the Phoenix Digital Media Centre in Leicester in November 2009, over 4500 people came to see it in two weeks and it has since been used by schools as an educational tool at the centre. New archaeological interpretation has allowed the creation of a mark II version of Virtual Roman Leicester with revisions to a number of the buildings and structures. It’s very likely that with new developments in games technologies that this kind of real-time visualization of built heritage and archeology will become increasingly important. Even if computation continues to follow Moore’s law of expanding capacity, which is by no means certain, increasing demands for improved realism and greater information provision in real-time experience on home computers and mobile devices will continue to make this kind of modelling relevant for a number of increasingly important heritage applications.

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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