Virtual Tourism, Time Travel, and Rome Reborn®
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 5/27/2019


How many of us can afford to travel to Rome?

I went there for my junior year of college. I was able to afford to take the trip by combining it with my studies and utilizing grants and scholarships to help cover the costs. Nonetheless, it was an expensive nine months. Every year it gets more expensive to return.

If you own a PC, a Mac, or numerous VR headsets, and have enough money to buy a paperback novel, you could visit Rome from the comfort and privacy of your home or office. There are virtual and panoramic apps out there to take you to different locations around the world using a relatively new kind of software: a “virtual tourism” app. The quality of existing virtual tourism apps and computer programs vary from ones where you wander around receiving little information to ones that are the equivalent of watching a documentary on a high-quality network such as BBC, National Geographic, or PBS.

There are many reasons to visit the Rome area. You may have family living there, or you may be interested in the Roman Catholic Church and want to visit the Vatican City. You may want to try out the local cuisine or see if Romans are always dressed at the height of fashion. You may love art and architecture or have a fondness for history.

Rome is full of history, layer upon layer. That’s part of the challenge of visiting it, no matter whether you love one particular time period or want to see as much as possible. Most of the historic sites charge entrance fees (the Pantheon is still a happy exception), and there will be a lot of walking no matter where you visit. Often tour guides are on a schedule, so you must keep up or miss out. Often, they are hard to hear because of traffic noise. While the Renaissance and later structures can be stunning, much of ancient Rome has completely vanished, and what little remains is in a ruinous condition that even a trained historian might struggle to comprehend.

Books and articles sometimes include recreations of what ancient Roman buildings and locations may have looked like. Their quality varies from artists’ conceptions with no particular claims to scientific accuracy to technical architectural plans, sections, and elevations. Documentaries can also be a way to see one producer or director’s idea of what Rome once looked, but we the viewers are at their mercy when it comes to how long we can look at any one monument or statue. The TV or film medium is “linear,” i.e., you can’t easily jump from site to site nor walk around to get just the view you desire to have. Neither the book nor video or film medium comes close to taking you back to ancient Rome itself.

Rome Reborn® is one of those exceptional virtual tourism apps that bridge the gap between what you can see today and what you can read about in books or watch in a documentary. For over two decades, the staff of archaeology, computer, and history experts have drawn from physical and textual evidence across the centuries to determine what Rome of 320 CE looked like, whether it is an overview of the entire city, with its thousands of buildings covering about 14 sq. km of space, or a particular building or feature seen up close. You don’t just see the site featured from a fixed point of view: you experience it within the context of the landscaping around it and other buildings nearby. Look at the front of the Pantheon, then turn around to discover what the courtyard around it may have looked like. Stand at one end of the Roman Forum, then turn to see how far away the other end is and how many wondrous temples, statues, and government buildings are between you and that other end.

Don’t worry about being confused by what you see. You can read pop-up text or listen to experts tell you a bit more about what you are looking at. You don’t just get a few facts; you’ll learn about what the item was used for, who built it and why, and even information about why colors, shapes, and styles were chosen for the recreation. The directions for how to use each application are presented in both text and voice when you start the app. They are easy to follow, and the tutorial takes under two minutes. Learn the user interface for one Rome Reborn app, and you’ve learned them for them all: it’s always the same.

If you wish, you can turn off the sound and text and just look at each scene for as long as you want without a tour guide urging you to keep up. You can watch it while sitting in your favorite chair, at your desk, on the couch in your living room, or even in bed. You won’t tire out from trekking around or worry about getting a sunburn. You won’t have to worry about traffic noise or keeping up with the tour guide: if you’re having trouble hearing the sound, just turn up the volume; and you don’t follow the guide around, you choose your own itinerary through the points of interest.

Of course, the experience with a VR headset is more full-bodied than using a PC or Mac computer, because the scale is 1:1 and you can turn your head to look around where you are standing. However, the PC and Mac versions are great for use with a group, whether it is your family, friends, or students. I love watching them using a VR headset to see their constant amazement as they discover something new and unexpected practically everywhere they look.

When you try out Rome Reborn® apps on a VR headset, you’ll be able to look in nearly every direction – 360° around you as well as above and below you. That means you can see the roads or floors and follow the walls up to the highest point, or sometimes float above it all to see it as few humans ever could. Here and there you can see virtual people, visitors like yourself, to give you a sense of scale. What you’ll see is what we think the structure may have looked like around 320 CE, when Rome had already become a tourist attraction. The colors and designs are not simply the plain white you may be familiar with from old books, movies, and television shows: the Rome Reborn team closely follows the latest archaeological research on restoring the lost paint to the white marble sculptures and architectonic elements. By the way, Rome Reborn® currently supports Oculus and Vive-compatible VR headsets. Later in 2019, it will also support the Sony PlaystationVR and Google Daydream headsets.

As you use the Rome Reborn® apps to look into the past, you are, in effect, traveling to another time. That is driven home with the use of the Time Warp feature at certain sites. Time Warp lets you click to see “Now,” meaning what the site looks like today. You can turn around and see the panorama in the “Now” view, too. Sometimes you’ll see tourists, as you do inside the Pantheon. In the Roman Forum app, you’ll have those “Now” sites to yourself, something you can’t easily do today if you visit Rome. Sometimes, Rome Reborn® will even take you to see parts of archaeological sites inaccessible to the public.

Click on “Then,” and you’ll slowly fade back in time to 320 CE, which gives you a better idea of where the ancient location is in relation to what you would see if you visited Rome today. If you plan on visiting the Eternal City, these Time Warps can be a great way to get familiar with an area before you set foot in it, perhaps even helping you plan how much time you want to spend looking around.

Having been to Rome and having visited many of the locations you can find in the Rome Reborn® apps, I can say that I wish I’d had this before and during my months there. As an ancient historian, I could appreciate the ruins as remnants of the culture I studied, but this time travel, this virtual tourism, has made it come to life and increased my appreciation for the ancient Romans. I think any educated person interested in art, architecture, and history would get as much enjoyment and profit from these virtual trips as I have had.


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