Preserving history through virtual reality

A group of Victoria University of Wellington Architecture students have brought historical architecture and social history to life with a virtual reality project to explore Wellington’s Gordon Wilson Flats.

Gordon Wilson flats VR project
A still from the Gordon Wilson flats VR experience

As part of Victoria University’s Summer Research Scholarships programme, Master’s students Jessie Rogers and David Silcock and undergraduate student Hannah Rushton developed a virtual reality (VR) experience that recreates the flats within the 59-year old building on The Terrace in central Wellington and overlays the experience with the social histories of tenants who lived there over the past 5 decades. Led by the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Design, Professor Marc Aurel Schnabel, the project is designed to explore contemporary methods of digital heritage.

“This project is a way to preserve architectural and social history and help the public engage with the heritage of modern buildings that have degraded over time,” Jessie says. “We can give people access to inaccessible places and help them understand the history of different architectural styles.”

Victoria University bought the Gordon Wilson Flats from Housing New Zealand in 2014. The Flats have been unoccupied and unused since 2012 and are designated as earthquake prone and posing a serious health and safety risk. Expert reports commissioned by the University have shown that the building cannot be retained and adapted in a way that is economically feasible, while preserving the heritage aspects of the building.

The University intends to demolish the flats and, in the medium term, create a front door between central Wellington and the University’s Kelburn campus, allowing a safe and attractive public pedestrian link between the campus and the city. Longer term the University would like to build a new facility on the site.

The video below previews what users of the technology can expect from the VR experience developed by Jessie, David, and Hannah. They can choose to view the original plans for the building, interact with a 3D model of the flats, and explore the building itself. While inside the building, users can switch between different views, seeing how the apartments would have looked in their prime and how they look in 2018. It is also possible to ‘fly’ around the outside of the building to fully explore the Gordon Wilson flats from all angles.

“Each user can get a completely unique experience depending on which areas they choose to explore,” Jessie says.

Creating this VR experience involved extensive research, site visits, interviews with former tenants and computer modelling and programming. The students started with the original plans for the Gordon Wilson flats, importing them into computer modelling software to produce a digital version of the original layout of the building.

The next step was visiting the site itself to collect real life data on the layout and design of the flats. This involved taking thousands of photos of the interior and exterior of the building, using drones to view the highest reaches of the building. The students also used a laser camera to collect infrared data and depth data from the flats. All this information went into their computer modelling software to create a complete 1:1 scale model of the building. This model was then imported into VR software to create the final VR experience.

“This was the perfect project to learn more about game creation and VR, and get more experience using specialised equipment like the laser camera,” Jessie says.

The students hope their work will be exhibited in a Wellington museum in 2019, although Jessie says there’s still plenty of work to be done before then.

“We’ll be optimising the content more and gathering more data on the flats,” Jessie says. “We now have access to newer and better software which will help us collect cleaner data and improve the VR experience.”