A virtual reality door to Norfolk’s bloody past

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood October 2, 2018
South Norfolk District Council has created a mixed reality app to immerse visitors in the colourful history of now sleepy Wymondham - the site of a bloody 16th century uprising and a shocking Victorian murder case

Norfolk virtual reality
Nowadays, Wymondham is just a picturesque market town in the East of England. But unless you’re up on your history, you may not know it was also the site of the battle that ended Kett’s 1549 Rebellion against enclosures, and the scene of a gruesome double murder that shocked England back in the 19th century.

Well, your excuse for not knowing this on your next visit to the place doesn’t really work any more, as governing local authority, South Norfolk District Council, has decided to spice up your trip with the aid of some instructive mixed reality apps.

Working with a specialist technology company in the area from nearby Norwich, Immersive VR, the Council has created two special interactive walking tours that bring some of this rich legacy to life.

The trails offer Augmented Reality (AR), 360º animations and video stories and other content that means a user can see the marketplace just as it was in medieval times, check out how the Abbey has changed over the centuries, and following in the footsteps of that self-same Mr Kett – the leader of one of the biggest rebellions England ever saw. There’s even the chance to take a selfie with a notorious Victorian murderer, James Bloomfield Rush, who in 1849 was found guilty of the murder while, ahem, disguised by a false wig and whiskers, of his landlord, Isaac Jermy, and his son, also called Isaac, at nearby Stanfield Hall.

The content visitors see is based on extensive historical research and resources and employs everything from GPS to photogrammetry (the science of making measurements from photographs) via illustration to motion capture, say the partners - who also say one of the main design principles is to benefit local businesses, as there’s also an inbuilt directory of useful information about the town, including suggestions for where to eat, shop, stay and explore, plus events and retail offers.

For instance: In 1549 Robert Kett of Wymondham led a revolt of peasants and small farmers in protest at the enclosure of common land, and was only defeated after a siege of Norwich and a major battle in Norwich, the Battle of Dussindale. This history has been evoked in the app by a range of techniques, starting with laser scanning of numerous models to create characters, motion capture of their physical movements in character, and then computer modelling of multiple locations. (Amusingly, two South Norfolk District Council employees are among those whose models and acting were used to build up the story, says the vendor.)

A number of physical landscapes and areas of the dirt also needed to be captured to give all this action a proper context - which is where the photogrammetry comes in, being utilised for some of the key battle sites still standing today, such as Elm Hill and Bishops Bridge in Norwich. These were then weaved together and animated into a short film that can be viewed on Windows Mixed Reality headsets at specific installations in the town, say the partners.

The app is also connected with a special wider Norfolk children’s VR experience, the GoGo Hares Sculpture trail - though we assume that the more sanguine aspects of life in Wymondham get toned down a bit.

Giving people a reason to visit

The Council’s operational economic development manager, David Disney, told diginomica/government he believes Wymondham is one of the first UK towns to use immersive technology in this way to retell its history, making use of both AR and VR (Virtual Reality) to bring the past alive.

Our business problem was that we wanted to create reasons for more people to visit the market towns in our district – local people, regional visitors and national tourists.

We also wanted to move away from traditional paper-based maps and trails and create an offer of new, state-of-the-art technology to excite, fire the imagination and create interest – making our historical interpretations and children’s trails stand out from all others.

Wymondham was chosen as a pilot, with the project being supported by European Funding, adds Disney, with the vendor winning the contract after demonstrating both creative vision and new interpretation ideas along with technical and project management skills needed to produce such as bespoke, first-to-market product.

Disney says that there have been around 1,300 app downloads by over 3500 visitors, though the target he’d like to beat would be more like 2000 downloads and 5000 visitors inside the six month mark.

In terms of the future, Disney told us:

The success of increasing visitor numbers and driving the local economy in the pilot town of Wymondham will determine if other area bespoke projects can be launched in our other market towns.

He does also have a word of caution is that one can’t make assumptions about the level of technology that other councils trying to do similar work with mixed reality should be expecting:

The most surprising thing you’ve learned through this work? That not everyone’s smartphone is smart enough! There are a lot of low end devices out there.

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