VR Immersion in the Battle of Bannockburn

Bannockburn Banner #7This is the second of two articles on Battlefield Heritage Centres. The Battle of Bannockburn (23-24 June 1314) was a significant Scottish victory by Robert the Bruce and his army against a much larger English force led by King Edward II in the First War of Scottish Independence and was a landmark in Scottish history. The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre http://battleofbannockburn.com/ just outside Stirling and operated by the National Trust for Scotland http://www.nts.org.uk/Home/ was opened for the 700th anniversary of the battle on the 1 March 2014 in a new building equipped with an impressive suite of Virtual Reality exhibits. Located at the heart of a wide area of landscape which saw events unfold over the two days in 1314, the building which was designed by Reiach and Hall (http://www.reiachandhall.co.uk/ ) is a low-key contrast in black brick to the largely white rough cast domestic buildings which are close by in the suburbs of the village. It stands out from these and rests just below the crest of a small hill which played an important part in the battle. The hill is now crowned with a viewing platform, flag-pole and a monument to Robert the Bruce.

Bannockburn Banner #1Designed around a courtyard the plan of the building leads the visitor from the entrance in a pre-programmed ant-clockwise circuit around it, for much of the time in darkness. This is another “black-box” visitor centre, necessarily so because of the nature of the exhibits which are all Virtual Reality. The experience is highly structured and organised, you have to book in advance, and select whether you want to be a “player” or an “observer.” These pre-programmed groups are issued with 3D specs and conducted around the VR galleries by a guide, in our case the excellent and appropriately costumed Ned. This is very much an experience for families and children, but even staid academics find themselves being caught up in the excitement of the narrative and game play. And this is what this experience is all about – it’s a dynamic, engaging, participative involvement in learning about a series of historical events by becoming part of the action.Bannockburn Banner #6

Immediately on arrival and presenting my pre-printed ticket I was invited to engage in “weapons handling” while I waited for my pre-booked and guided visit to start. This unstuffy and no-nonsense invitation was a great way break the ice and simply get involved. Real hands-on handling of swords, real armour and helmets convince the visitor that this experience is going to be something different and immediate. Bannockburn Banner #2a

The main event begins when we are taken through, as a group to the battlefield experience, a large, entirely black room with 3D projection on all the walls and in cloistered sections behind for further interactive CGI with animated characters. The guide gives careful instructions as to where to stand, what is being seen, what is available to be seen and how to interact with exhibits. I have to say that without this human guidance it would have been impossible to understand what to do or what was being seen, but as it was Ned the guide made an excellent job of narrating us through what turned out to be a highly interesting if somewhat sanitized presentation of the battle as it developed from the viewpoint of an observer within it. The 3D was generally OK, best for things like flying arrows and cross-bow bolts which very realistically appeared to whizz by, or indeed through us but less convincing for some of the human characters which although having been created using motion capture at times appeared cartoonish. This is not Braveheart, there is no blood spray, spattered mud and mutilations here, it’s more boys own but in many regards no less entertaining or informative for it. Bannockburn Banner #3

Around the perimeter of the room behind cloistered screens are a series of about ten, one-to-one interactive characters presented on the wall. You stand on metal plates in front of them and use a simple hand gesture to interact and prompt the character to speak to you, each has about five possible short scripts which you can select and which are informative, sometimes humorous and give a real sense of the diversity of people involved and their views. This character interaction is a genuinely interesting and effective part of the exhibition, I found myself progressing from one character to another and gaining useful insights about the motivations, prejudices and pre-occupations of these characters, all of whom are based on fact. Bannockburn Banner #4

For the second part of the “show” we were expertly shepherded into a battle “game-play” room another completely dark space but this time circular with a central console and projection mapping table. About a dozen “players” from the visitor group were allocated numbered positions around the table which had the physical topography of a few square miles of the battlefield on it. Ned our guide occupied a position at a control console and the rest of us occupied the circular upper level gallery to watch. Projection mapping was used to control and show graphic representations of the movement of forces over the battlefield on the circular table in the centre of the room. Each active participant was responsible for making decisions about the deployment and engagement of regiments, and had been allocated either to a Scottish or an English one. Most of the “generals” in command appeared to be under 12 years of age and there were a couple of Dads assisting. Like all good games this was very much a social event, not cerebral, but emotive and impulsive, both because of the natural inclinations of the players and the infectious enthusiasm of Ned the guide. I think it resulted in a popular Scottish victory but could have gone either way. Underlying this great experience is the technology, a computer game programme calculates and projects attrition based on a series of variables to do with the forces in play, their pre-programmed capabilities, and the geography and so on. Interestingly at the end of the process, there was a light diagnostic analysis of how the game had played out, losses, gains, duration and so on along with a comparison with what happened in the actual battle. This made the “game-play” more than just entertainment but a valuable learning experience conducted in way which communicated the visceral time-dependent urgency of decision-making in life and death situations. Bannockburn Banner #5

We emerged from the game play into reality and the small café for refreshment and the inevitable retail opportunity near the entrance. It felt like having been to the cinema but with a personal guide or compere. Overall this is definitely an “experience”, it is certainly entertainment, and it’s ideal for a family afternoon or morning out and it achieves all of these aims very well. It’s not a museum and is not intended to be one, it has no real artefacts but outside it does have the modern landscape of the battlefield which a 2 minute walk to the observation point lays out before you. There is a disconnect between the immersive VR experienced in the centre and the reality of standing on a wind-blown hill-top looking at a real landscape. There is no attempt at augmented reality which is perhaps a little surprising but rather immersion was the technical path chosen by the design team. The development was a partnership between the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government (£5.0M approx) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (£3.94M grant), and The Concept and Design of the new interpretation was by Bright White Ltd ( http://www.brightwhiteltd.co.uk/  ) with 3D Research, Development and Realisation by CDDV, Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation (CDDV) http://www.scottishten.org/index/partners/cddv.htm , a partnership between The Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio (DDS) and Historic Scotland. Bannockburn Banner #2

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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