If you came along to the Bath Digital Festival, you may have had a chance to interact with Zubr’s Augmented Reality (AR) Binoculars. This amalgamation of analogue and digital has unlocked a new way to get immersed in popular experiences and landmarks. The latest iteration of their use is excitingly in collaboration with Bristol’s most iconic boat, the SS Great Britain.

To help celebrate an astonishing 180 years since the ship first set sail, the SS Great Britain Trust was keen to explore the possibilities of fusing technology, engineering and art. Zubr jumped at the chance and now visitors can experience the historic 1843 launch through the innovative virtual binoculars. Using state of the art technology, the team has used Bristol artist Joseph Walter’s famous watercolour of the launch to create the end product. 

No knowledge of tech is required to have a fulfilling experience here. If you find yourself at the SS Great Britain, simply step up and peer through the binoculars. Give them a wiggle to explore the 19th century dockyard packed full of expectant watchers, reimagined via Joseph Walter’s painting and augmented with a sprinkling of AI and some 3D magic!

Bringing history to life

As the rollout of Zubr’s binoculars has been so well received across the heritage sites that they’ve implemented them in, the team reached out to the SS Great Britain as they were searching for a local partner. 

Amy Stewart, Project Manager at Zubr, tells us that it was a really special project for the team, not only because it’s in their home city, but also because, “It really embodies our company values of collaboration, curiosity and creativity. 

“We worked closely with the SS Great Britain Interpretation and Technical teams to make this project a reality. We were able to work in a curious and playful way, trialling different techniques to bring the watercolour to life; and we were given permission to really flex our creative muscles to make something really unique.

“The team at SS Great Britain have access to such a wealth of knowledge and their archive holds such fascinating artefacts which visitors can sometimes overlook in favour of the showstopper ship. It sounds really cheesy, but I think Brunel would be really captivated by the combination of innovation and creativity this project encompasses.”

Making this vision a reality

Together they settled on bringing a watercolour painting to life, enhancing this traditional art form with a newfound edge of digital creativity. Working with an artefact that is so removed from modern technology, yet marks the convergence of innovation and history is what made this project so unique. But why choose a painting? “For some visitors, paintings can be hard to engage with,” explains Amy.

“Maybe people take a quick look and move on – but by animating different parts of the painting and adding sound effects it makes people look at both the real and the painted ships for longer.” When using the binoculars, expect flapping flags, diving seagulls, and the sailors heaving on the ropes to help the ship’s maiden voyage. To create an even more immersive scene, the team also incorporated atmospheric sound effects like the gull’s calls, the cheering crowd, and the lapping water.

“The binoculars let you see a scene you could never experience otherwise, revealing a hidden layer of history like a palimpsest, giving you the impression that you’re really looking at a scene from the past,” adds Amy. “I think it also heightens peoples’ awareness that the ship is older than you might think and reinforces that fact that today it sits in the dockyard where it was originally built.”

The binoculars will be around all summer for people to engage with. The Zubr team wanted to embed an additional later of history into the standard visitor journey, whilst also moderning the experience of examining archival items from a museum collection for young people.

“Using the binoculars, we were able to reunite a 19th century watercolour with the place it depicts and to really capture the atmosphere of the launch – allowing people to see the dockyard as a place of celebration as well as a place of work,” says Amy.

Zubr would love to know what you think of the installation. If you have the chance to check it out, please let them know your thoughts here

Amy tells us that it’s been great for kids who enjoy climbing up on the footstand to look through: “The fact that there aren’t any buttons or instructions – you just take a look! – means that children are empowered to explore for themselves which is quite unique for a digital experience, with AR/VR experiences usually supervised by staff. The ‘freeplay’ nature of the binoculars matches the exploratory visitor experience of the rest of the SS Great Britain site.”

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.