History repeating: how tech is changing the way we explore the past

Exploring the history of the world through technology

If there's something most of us have in common, it's an interest in the past and how we've evolved over time. That can be anything from investigating how people like the Romans lived to tracing back your own family tree.

There are a ton of ways you can turn back the clock to gain an insight into how our civilisation has transformed over the years. All across the world, there are museums, art galleries, libraries and heritage sites to explore history. Plus, it's taught right through the education system.

Then you have trained historians, whose job it is to track the past and ensure we're always in touch with it. It's a challenging task, of course, especially when you consider the amount of sources that need to be tracked. Without them, we'd likely forget the history we make.

While the traditional aspects of history remain, the latest technology is reinventing the area. Virtual reality, for example, is making time travel possible. And historians and archaeologists are turning to innovations such as 3D imaging to investigate historic remains and artefacts more accurately. Combined, it's changing the way we explore the past.

Keeping history alive

Museums and memorials play a pivotal role in helping us remember history, although the organisations and people responsible for running them are increasingly adopting the latest technology to appeal to the masses. And the the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, UK, is a great example.

A key part of The Royal British Legion, it's a place where you can remember and pay your respects to those who have fallen in war - recognising service and sacrifice. The centre will soon be opening a new £15.7 million facility to cater for the thousands of people who visit annually. It'll bring history and personal stories alive through the use of innovation such as interactive databases and cinema screens.

The arboretum also ran a digital time capsule project over the summer, where members of the public were asked to submit messages of remembrance via text message. People of all ages and backgrounds sent in messages, including the young daughter of a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan and several politicians. The handset housing the messages will be buried for 100 years.

Tech and history

Sarah Oakden, head of marketing at the centre, says: "We look forward to welcoming people to our new remembrance centre, offering an engaging and thought provoking journey through the rich history of remembrance from around the world. By embracing technology, we have been able to maximise the exhibition space, and offer a far more extensive and emotional experience than could be realised through traditional museum exhibits.

"The bright colours and sounds from the exhibits create an immersive experience, demonstrating that remembrance can be expressive and not just reflective. Providing a broad range of methods to remember is critical in ensuring that people of all ages can feel that the National Memorial Arboretum is a place that the whole country can come together in commemorating those who are no longer be with us."

In order for future generations to enjoy the world's historic treasures, it's fundamental that they're preserved and maintained effectively. Well, software can aid this mission. The University of Manchester Library in the UK has begun moving its collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps and archives into Preservica's cloud-based digital preservation service.

Preservica

Andy Land, digital programmes manager at The University of Manchester Library, explains: "Our digital preservation programme is part of a Library strategy to make our collections more accessible to students, researchers and the public and supports a University-wide agenda to capitalise on the cost efficiencies offered by the cloud.

"We have partnered with digital preservation specialist, Preservica, who have provided cloud hosted active preservation and access software that not just stores securely our digital content (in AWS S3), but also ensures the files and formats we are creating and storing today can still be used and read by the applications and file formats that might be in use in the future."

The past in VR

Virtual reality is making the rounds in a plethora of areas, and it's helping us to preserve and remember the past too. Dr Matthews Nicholls, a lecturer at the University of Reading, has built a virtual Rome for students studying classics. By using a VR headset, they can wander through the city as it was in 315 AD.

He's using the virtual reality experience as an invaluable teaching tool for students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the university as well as further afield. In particular, it's being used in lectures and public talks to give people an insight into the ancient city and how its people lived.

history and tech

"My work focuses on ancient Rome. I've built a large scale digital model of the city in 315 AD that I use in teaching, research, and commercial partnerships all the time. An environment on such a massive scale allows you to step into the past, and there are many benefits for the students," Nicholls tells TechRadar.

"First of all, you can create really vibrant visual material to illustrate lectures – such as still pictures of historical sites, or fly-throughs of the city to keep students attentive. But the immersive potential of digital environments now allows us to do so much more than this, especially as AR and VR hardware and software is more accessible than ever in terms of both price and usability by non-specialists like me and my students."

Google is in on the act as well. The tech giant recently teamed up with around 60 museums to let people from all across the world explore some of their exhibits using Google Cardboard, its 360-degree viewer. While you can't literally walk through all the halls of the museums, you're able to experience a selection of the historic artefacts they offer. London's Natural History Museum is one of the organisations working with Google.

Sir Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum, says: "We want to challenge as many people as possible to think differently about the natural world, because now more than ever, understanding our past and present can help us all shape the future.

history and tech

"Working with Google Arts and Culture helps us to inspire the next generation of scientists and also to uncover new scientific insights from the collection using digital technology. This is the first step in a great new journey of discovery."

Tech in the field

Technology isn't just letting the public engage with history, though. It's also allowing historians and archaeologists to uncover gems from the past, directly in the field. Tom Goskar has been using computers and 3D technology for 16 years. In 2002, he was part of a team that used 3D scanners at Stonehenge. He's never been afraid to use the latest gadgets to help him in his work.

"I've reconstructed large prehistoric landscapes complete with botanically accurate vegetation, people and animals, as well as built large archaeological websites," he says. "I was an early adopter of social media in the heritage world, and suffered the badge of honour in being labelled a disrupter," he says.

More recently, he's been using online modelling software to help him share his findings with the world. "One of the most recent innovations that has had an impact in the wider heritage world has been the online service Sketchfab," he says.

"You could use the analogy that it's the YouTube of 3D. Making 3D models is one thing, but in archaeology it's essential that we share our findings - we don't own the past - it's everyone's past. Until the arrival of Sketchfab getting 3D models online was clunky. Now I can upload a model and share it in an instant - and that's useful for the public to see, and for other archaeologists to be able to see and compare objects - or indeed whole landscapes."

History and tech

Sometimes, archaeologists can run into challenges when dealing with old, precious artefacts. Tom has been using special imaging technology to understand small details and writing on coins and gravestones. He says: "I've also used a technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to help read some tricky coin and gravestone inscriptions. It's a photographic technique that uses a fixed camera and object, with multiple shots illuminated from different directions.

"These images are then analysed in software to create a polynomial texture map: a photo where each pixel in the image has an extra value - luminance - to the usual RGB based on where you would like a virtual light to be. It means that you can remove colour information which can be distracting, and just view the luminance."

Traditionally, we investigate history through atypical means such as books and other documents. But, ironically, they're set in the past. Technology, as the examples in this piece show, is transforming the way we look at the past in many different ways. Not only is it creating new experiences for the public, but the latest innovation is also proving effective for the people who make and protect historic findings.