Virtually There

The digital reconstructions bringing Roman ruins to life” by Matthew Nicholls raises some interesting questions. In general I’m in favor of reality reality over virtual reality and augmented reality, but that position is not absolute. There are certainly places for digital reproductions of reality. I just have an instinctive reaction against the technology because we live in a physical world and so I prefer our buildings be physical objects rather than representations.

That said, the article discusses a use for augmented reality that rather neatly solves a problem in the world of artifacts – including building – restoration. How much do you repair? How much missing material should you replace? If the reality of an artifact is that it is damaged or incomplete, how much restoration is too much? The example that is a cliche in the art world is that you would not put arms on the Venus de Milo. The building equivalent might be the Parthenon, which was still largely intact as late as 1687, when it was blown up during a battle. That’s over 300 years ago and therefore the ruination of the building is historic in its own right, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the building should be entirely restored. Restoring it might make it look as it did when new, over 2400 years ago, but in the process we’d lose the history in the physical artifact itself.

But augmented reality, as described in the article, offers a solution. We do not have to choose between keeping a building in a ruined but historically accurate state or restoring it but losing its years of history. We can keep it as is, considering the history, and use the new technology to let us see it, when we wish, in a restored state. That seems like a great solution, but it also raises the issue of losing the present. If wearing a headset gets you the reconstructed past in living color, will you settle for the drab and damaged present? I’m at least partially hopeful, because the use of augmented reality passes one of the most important tests of a viable preservation option: it does no physical harm to the historic material.

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