BBC’s Civilisations app lets users explore ancient artefacts in AR

By Rachael Steven

BBC Two’s new documentary Civilisations explores the history of human creativity. Presenters Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama examine 500 artefacts from 31 countries – from Palaeolithic cave paintings to photographs by Ansel Adams and Istanbul’s blue mosque – and explore how art has evolved since the beginning of civilisation.

The BBC has also launched an augmented reality app to accompany the series. Civilisations AR was created by Nexus Studios in partnership with BBC Arts and BBC Research and Development and allows users to examine ancient artefacts from British museums using their smartphone.

Artefacts include the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, a 14th century sculpture of Madonna and Child from the National Museum of Scotland and an Egyptian mummy from the Torquay Museum. Some are featured in the series and all relate to themes explored in the show – from faith the human body.

How it works

Users can browse items by location using a globe or by theme. They can tap an object to view it in VR and inspect in detail by zooming in, rotating or scaling it up and down.

A ‘magic torch’ tool allows users to uncover hidden features – from audio commentary to images and sound effects – while an X-Ray feature allows them to peer inside or through objects. Users can also wipe away rust and dirt and view items as they would have looked when new using a ‘Restore’ feature.

Nexus Studios Producer Claire Cook says the aim was to make users feel like explorers travelling the globe to find and learn about ancient items. “It was that Indiana Jones idea of finding a secret treasure and unlocking some of its mysteries,” she says.

“That really drove us in the beginning and then we sat down and thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if you could see through a sarcophagus to look at a mummy? Or if you could find out what the writing on the Rosetta Stone means … and dig down into the different layers of history in an object to uncover the story of how it was made and what makes it interesting?’” she adds.

“Then it was about trying to find artefacts that would fit the different themes and allow us to add some fun interactive features. We tried to have a range of content from different parts of the globe – we didn’t want a cluster of artefacts in one place so they had to be distributed evenly.”

Scanning ancient objects

Items were selected by the BBC following an open call to museums. Nexus Studios was given digital scans of each object – some taken by museums and some by BBC Research and Development – and created digital models based on these scans.

Some scans were complete while others needed remodelling and “fixing”, explains Cook: “One of the key difficulties in scanning is that you sometimes miss certain details. You might get gaps in the models which need fixing, or the texture of an object won’t be quite right, so you have to adapt it to make it look as authentic as possible.”

Nexus worked closely with the BBC to ensure the retouched models were accurate: “We’d have image reference material to work from and videos we could look at. We also liaised with museum curators directly and asked them to check all of the models we made before we put them in the app,” explains Cook. “The interesting thing with history is that different historians don’t always agree … so it was about trying to reach a happy medium.”

Reaching a wider audience with AR

The app is aimed at ages eight and over but Cook says it can be used by younger children with some assistance. The app is available to download for free on iOS and Android devices so can be accessed by a wider audience than the show (which is currently only available to viewers in the UK).

“The app is designed to work for pretty much anyone. Audience-wise, we were thinking ages eight and up but the show will have a slightly older audience as it’s shown post-watershed,” says Cook.

“It’s not targeted at kids specifically but because it’s educational, it lends itself quite well to being used in the classroom. We’ve already seen schools on Twitter sharing pictures of children using it to examine prehistoric beakers or learn about objects,” she adds.

Designing a minimal and accessible UI

The user interface is deliberately minimal. Each object screen includes just a handful of touch points and ‘hotspots’ (which users can tap to trigger audio commentary) are clearly signposted. Tapping a book icon reveals information about that object and links to further information. Tap a camera icon and you can take a picture of an object in your surroundings.

“We were quite lucky to have a good bit of thinking time on this project in the design phase so we went back and forth for quite a long time about how it should work and what it should look like,” explains Cook. “What we ended up with is very pared back…. We wanted as little screen noise as possible and for sound to bring objects to life but not be [playing] the whole time.”

Evocative sound effects by Brains and Hunch reflect the place and time in which an object was created or how it was used. Users can hear the sound of water when examining a divination cup or hear a person breathing when looking at an ancient mask. “We tried to give objects as much depth as possible through the sound design … it really brings them to life,” adds Cook.

The app is designed to be accessible. A brief tutorial helps explain functions to users who might not be familiar with AR. Nexus Studios also followed the BBC’s accessibility guidelines to ensure the app could be used by people with hearing and visual impairments and limited mobility.

Nexus spent five months working on the app and worked closely with the BBC throughout: “It was a proper collaboration. They listened to our guidance and we worked together to get a great range of content,” explains Cook. “They also have access to some great talent so we co-wrote the copy and got a BBC newsreader from Manchester to do the voiceover.”

Creating a social experience

Nexus Studios has previously created AR experiences for the White House and the Forestry Commission. It is a growing area for Nexus – in part because it is more accessible than VR and also because it can be a social experience as well as a solitary one. Users can take and share screengrabs from the app, showing objects in their surroundings.

“A lot of our projects from 1600 [for the Whitehouse] and the Gruffalo Spotter [for the Forestry Commission] are things you can do on your own or with people and it’s really nice when you can have that digital engagement but in a group.”

“I think that’s important in these apps as well – to create a tool that people can use and distribute themselves in a way through word of mouth. With this, we wanted to reach as mainstream an audience as possible. We didn’t want it to be a mystery or something people might think is too tech-y. It’s just a super easy, very quick way to get people into using technology to learn more about a particular subject.”

You can watch Civilisations on BBC iPlayer here.

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