Storytelling has evolved exponentially since the dawn of technology. When it comes to history and our heritage, storytelling is the predominant way in which we educate people. As our connection to the past becomes increasingly digitalised, what do we need to bare in mind? 

On Cities Day at Bath Digital Festival, we collated a panel of experts to discuss how we bring heritage to life through creative technologies, how this brings stories to a wider audience and where the challenges of inauthenticity arise. 

Bath has a rich and vibrant history. Deeply connected to the present day, Bath knows its roots and is famously the only UNESCO World Heritage Site city. So, we felt it was extremely important to have a day dedicated to the city of Bath.

Jack Norris, founder of VR/AR studio Zubr, Jo Reid, founder of Calvium, Tom Harber, Managing Director of Aer Studios and Amy Frost at the Bath Preservation Trust talked us through their creative approaches and beliefs of how we can bridge time and technology.

Stories for all

To illustrate ways technology can reimagine history, the panel discussed the collaborative project worked on by Zubr, Calvium and the Bath Presevation Trust at Beckford’s Tower. 

Bath Preservation Trust chose the agencies to deliver a range of engaging, innovative and immersive digital experiences for visitors to Beckford’s Tower and along the walk towards it through the paddocks and Lansdown Cemetery. This covered both indoor and outdoor premises, plus accessible interpretation. The ambition was to create playful ways in which visitors could learn.

Jack says, “The project was a combination of the creative and innovative AR expertise we have nurtured at Zubr Curio, alongside Calvium’s robust and visitor-friendly Place Experience Platform, to offer novel routes for people to access the historic narrative of Beckford’s Tower.”

Through sound, animation, interactive experiences, video interview pieces, and breathtaking AR reconstructions, the grounds have been modified in a myriad of innovative ways. This includes utilising audio and AR tech to enhance the walk through the paddocks and cemetery to the Tower, and to explore the stories of William Beckford and many others who are part of the Tower’s history.

“Creating interactive experiences, sometimes with a gamified approach, broadens the engagement of people coming through heritage sites and museums”

Crucially, the project also oversaw the installation of Zubr’s handheld AR binoculars. “Accessibility to the Tower has always been an issue,” explains Amy. “The interior spaces can only be accessed via a spiral staircase. We cannot make alternations to to building, and so some individuals, unfortunately, are unable to reach the top.” Zubr’s solution now provides a step-free 360-degree view from the top of the Tower in a familiar, analogue-feeling device.

Implementing these technologies makes spaces more accessible in a less literal sense too. Tom highlights that “everyone has different learning styles. Creating interactive experiences, sometimes with a gamified approach, broadens the engagement of people coming through heritage sites and museums, particularly when it comes to educating young people.” 

Context is important to communicate, particularly with spaces like Beckford’s Tower, which has a dark history entrenched in its origins. Amy tells us the flexibility of Zubr’s infrastructure was revolutionary: “We’re a small attraction with physical and budget constraints that prevent us from installing permanent fixtures. Additionally, the causal use of the AR binoculars means more people engage with them.”

The entire panel agrees that this approach enables democratising technology for everyday storytellers, allowing more people to enjoy and understand historical narratives. 

Considering the drawbacks

A key point raised in the discussion was the risk of misinformation that sides alongside utilising technology in storytelling.

The rise of social media and smartphones has seen a correlation between fake news and widespread misinformation, so it’s a valid concern. Whilst maintaining historical accuracy should be a top priority in building interactive tech for heritage purposes, relinquishing control over traditional means of communication doesn’t mean compromising on this. 

It was highlighted that perhaps integrity was the wrong focus here. “We must continually evolve, and bringing the next generation’s vernacular into places of learning is no bad thing,” Tom highlights. Technology empowers us to go a step further that we should grab with both hands. 

“It’s not just about digitalising; we have the opportunity to gamify attractions to distance them from standard learning experiences,” Tom continues. It’s a tried and tested understanding that making education fun not only solidifies knowledge, but also opens up the playing field for those with differing learning styles. “If we can use tech to get a new, diverse group of 16-25 year olds to visiting heritage sites, we should be embracing it.”

Underscoring all of this was a recognition that creative technologies have a responsibility to represent the past truthfully, whilst also building joyful experiences for visitors. 

An audience member highlights that through TikTok her son has been discovering historical sites across the world that he now aspires to visit. The same process is happening to Bath, which already has a strong relationship with tourism. It was questioned whether digital tourism was a positive or negative outcome for the city here.

On the one hand, it could be a climate positive approach to bring Virtual Reality experiences into educational spaces, bridging literal travel and tech. Making history accessible to everyone, regardless of physical or geographical limitations, could be a very exciting prospect.

The potential damage to Bath’s tourism industry was considered here, but the panel concluded that experiencing a space digital prior to visiting physically often increases engagement and excitement. The knowledge and context gained from this usually enhances the overall tourism experience.

Overall, this discussion illustrated how it’s a truly exciting time for creative technology. We’re only just scratching the surface of the time travel possibilities that lie at our fingertips.

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.