Ancient Greek History Revived Through Pioneering Virtual Reality Project



The ruins of the Cycladic Bronze Age settlement on Santorini. It was destroyed in the Theran eruption in the 16th century BC and buried in volcanic ash. Credit: Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons.

Should you feel tempted to experience a breathtaking virtual reality revival of the major Bronze Age eruption of the volcano of Santorini, the siege of the ancient city of Rhodes in 304 B.C. or the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism in 1900, then your wish could be granted as early as in spring 2021.

Noesis Science Centre and Technology Museum in Thessaloniki is in the process of developing a new and innovative virtual reality simulator platform and its accompanying films, which will empower users to step into the shoes of one of two distinct past-era characters in each story from the moment they put on their state-of-the-art VR headsets.

Powered by a generous half million euro funding by the EU through the Research-Create-Innovate state aid action, the Activator project, as it has been named, constitutes an ambitious effort to further develop experiential virtual reality with the aim of learning, acquainting the public with new technologies, disseminating knowledge, evolving research and also entertainment.

“This new technology that we are to introduce has nothing to do with the commercial virtual reality sets that you might have seen in entertainment venues. It will be far more upgraded and modern, and a real breakthrough once it becomes available”, says the director of Noesis, Athanasios Kontonikolaou.

Supervised by the country’s General Secretariat for Research and Technology, the Museum has made a name for its ever-evolving informal education programs and exhibitions. Hence, the aforementioned scenarios of the first three films created for Activator are all relevant to the institution’s tradition of educating visitors on the technological and scientific achievements of the Ancient Greeks.

“In the first scenario, the viewer will be able to wander around the ancient Cycladean city of Santorini, and learn about all the technological innovations then in use at the site of Akrotiri”, Kontonikolaou adds.

“This was the oldest Greek, and possibly one of the first world civilizations to use structural elements of modern-day societies which were very advanced for that era, such as a sewage system and other innovations. Thanks to the motion simulator platform, users will be able to even feel the earthquake caused by the eruption of the volcano in 1613 B.C. that flattened out the city”.

Snapshot from one of the first specialist films designed for Activator, simulating a walk around the streets of the Bronze Age city of Santorini. Credit: Noesis Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum.

Similarly, the film about the siege of Rhodes will allow visitors to familiarise themselves with the advanced war technology used in Greece around the end of the 4th century B.C..

On the other hand, the third scenario, the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, was naturally picked up, given both the international fame of the artifact and also the specialist knowledge accumulated by several members of the Noesis Board of Directors and its researchers in extensive studies relating to this over the years.

As Kontonikolaou points out, the films created for Activator go above and beyond the customary VR gaming aesthetic: “Our graphics and animation are specialized and based on exceptional sensors so that we can really achieve an interlocking of view and motion in experiencing culture; one could only come across similar equipment in some of the most high-end temporary exhibitions abroad”.

The Centre for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH), which does all the digital app research for the project and shares nearly half the funding, is the partner responsible for ensuring that exact sensory interlocking when using the platform. In addition to enjoying a 3D projection of the VR film and being in control of the viewing angle, the user will receive complete physical feedback through the specialized motion simulation equipment, thus physically feel the experiences in which they participate.

“Asides from the VR headsets, which offer what we call fourth dimension, there are certain “degrees” of movement in any motion simulator platform, such as right and left movement, the ability to rotate, to lift, to sit down… At this moment, the 4D platform offers right and left and back and forth movement, but it does not offer the possibility of rotation or of attaching sensors on the user, which would offer them an even livelier and more realistic experience”, the Noesis’ director explains.

Snapshot from the virtual reality simulator film which takes us back in time to the siege of the city of Rhodes in 304 B.C.. Credit: Noesis Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum.

There is, however, extremely far-fetching potential for adding to these possibilities at a later stage: “We might discover newer technologies which we are unaware of today, compatible with Activator. It could offer 5- or 9-dimensional experience, as the platform would continue to progress in line with the latest technological trends – although keeping the safety of users is our first priority. There is an ongoing international discussion about whether the user could feel dizziness or fear and insecurity while watching multi-dimensional VR films, and these questions need to be answered before VR technology moves to the next level. That is why all these VR films have a maximum duration of up to 5 minutes; so that we can ensure a pleasant experience for the user, not the contrary”.

Despite delays by suppliers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has slowed down the production process, Activator could be set up at Noesis by March 2021, operating on a pilot basis. The first visitors to use it will be asked for feedback through questionnaires to rate the experience so that it can be further perfected.

At the same time, the project managers will declare competitions for VR experts who could help in the further development of the content of the films for the platform or even advance the latter with additional levels of motion experience in the future.

If the pilot operation goes as expected, Kontonikolaou would aspire to see Activator marketed internationally by the commercial branch of Noesis in the summer of 2021. “As an independent exhibit, Activator could be either licensed or granted to respective research centers abroad, with royalties on tickets. Another thought is that it could be added as part of the IDEA temporary exhibition, which we produced with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation. It was presented in Athens and Slovenia and has contracts in place for touring in Cyrpus, Egypt and Canada”.

Since Noesis is self-funded to a level of 70-80% of its annual budget, any income generated from the commercialization of Activator would go towards the institution’s financial sustainability, but also be used for new investments on original educational and research programs that benefit society and take the community forward.