Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Augmented monoliths: Stonehenge goes digital

Niall Firth, technology editor

Ever wanted to stand at the centre of Stonehenge at summer solstice and appreciate the site’s beauty without the accompaniment of tourists or druids? Well, now you can. A new augmented reality app gives users a unique perspective on England’s famous standing stones.
Produced by the University of Huddersfield, UK, and developers Ribui, the Stonehenge Experience iPhone app lets users explore a virtual version of the famous site.
Pinching and sliding on the touchscreen lets you play with the view of the stones as a voiceover updates you on the latest theories and research -  though much about Stonehenge still remains a mystery, of course - on how and why it was built.
It was always going to be tricky to recreate the majesty of the 5000-year-old site, positioned on Salisbury Plain in south-west England. However, the app delivers some neat tricks. A Google Maps image of the circle and its surroundings has various active sections to visit. At one such spot, users can “excavate” the site of a man’s remains who was buried by the standing stones by rubbing away the topsoil with a swipe of a finger (cue much eye-rolling from archaeologists: “It’s much harder than that…”).
Buried with the arrow that killed him, the man’s presence - along with weapons buried in the nearby barrow mounds - is seen as evidence that Stonehenge was, at some stage in its long life, used as an arena for combat.
The henge is made up of sarsens, the big stones used to build Stonehenge’s recognisable arches, and smaller bluestones. Each sarsen weighs up to 45 tonnes, the monoliths sourced from sandstone beds in the area. The first work on them began at Stonehenge at around the same time that construction began on the pyramids in Egypt. The 75 huge standing stones were pulled upright by a team of up to 200 men and the app lets you zoom in and watch some of these little digitised prehistoric men as they tug one of the giant stones into position.
Another feature uses augmented reality and acoustic modelling by Rupert Till, senior lecturer in music technology at the University of Huddersfield, to help recreate what it may have been like to stand within the circle when it was complete. Users can stand within the virtual stones and physically move about, using the iPhone and iPad’s gyroscope, compass and accelerometer. Speaking into the microphone produces an echo effect designed to mimic the sounds when standing within the ancient circle.
“Creating the sound of Stonehenge as it was when it was first built was a really interesting challenge,” says Till. “When put together with the Ribui app it makes for an absorbing immersive experience and allows people to see and hear Stonehenge as it was 5000 years ago.”
The smooth, carved stones were perfectly aligned for the winter solstice sunset and the summer solstice sunrise. Stonehenge Experience has been launched in advance of the winter solstice this Thursday. This, the shortest day of the year, was considered to be the beginning of the sun’s rebirth and was the most important day of the year in prehistoric times. Thousands would head along the river Avon to stand by the stones and give thanks, and - perhaps - offer sacrifices.  Maybe nothing will match gazing upon the stones this Thursday, but appreciating a virtual version certainly gives a little extra insight into our ancient ancestors. Without added druids or tourists.


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