Researchers create "virtual villa" using video game technology

Researchers at Indiana University, leading an international collaborative team, have used the Unity 3D game engine to create an interactive digital model of Hadrian's Villa, a Roman ruin located near Tivoli, Italy, for research and educational purposes.

The science of archaeo-informatics brings together traditional archaeology with digital tools such as 3D modeling, simulation, and data mining in order to learn about ancient ruins and cultures in new ways, and to communicate this learning not only within the archaeological and anthropological communities, but also with the lay public.

Dr. Bernard Frischer at Indiana University has led a team on a five-year project to produce a detailed and accurate model of Hadrian's Villa as it existed during Roman times, with strict attention to historically- and archaeologically-verifiable facts about the location. Hadrian's Villa is near Tivoli, Italy, and the area of study for this project encompasses approximately 200 acres (81 hectares) and would in period (117 to 138 CE) have been home to about 3,000 people.

The 3D digital model could have been offered as a standalone resource, permitting an interactive "flying camera" examination, but the team went much further, using the cross-platform Unity 3D game engine to render the ruin as a virtual environment in which animated characters go about their daily tasks and even interact with their visitor from the real world. It works exactly like playing a video game, except that there is no combat and no victory condition or quests. The "player" is simply visiting the world, observing NPCs (non-player characters; that is, animated simulations of people) living their lives. Visitors can select from multiple avatars, assuming the role of Hadrian himself, courtiers, craftsmen, and even slaves.

The team worked hard to ensure that all aspects of the NPCs' behavior, from their traffic patterns walking about the ruin down to conversational hand and body posture and gestures, were as accurate as current research could make them. They took particular care with astronomical details, allowing the visitor to position the sun very precisely for the season and time of day, in order to examine how architectural features aligned with respect to sun and shadows. The astronomical models rely on data from NASA and other sources.

Like other game engines, Unity 3D manages the details of rendering a virtual world and allowing a player to move about within, and interact with, objects in that world. Unity does not, itself, provide the characters or the environment, nor even the user interface, but rather offers a software foundation onto which developers can assemble their own world. Some game engines are limited to a single platform (usually either Microsoft Windows, or one of the game console platforms such as Wii, Playstation, or XBox), but Unity is able to run on Windows, Linux, and Macintosh computers, major game consoles, and multiple mobile devices including iPad and Android. The system also has a web-based player that allows games to work within a standard web browser.

To bring their vision to life, the project team had to create a detailed model of all the "static" objects in their virtual world, which includes things that do not (normally) move, such as architecture, trees, and large furniture. They then had to model moving architectural features such as doors, create a climate model, and shape the terrain of the area. They had to then create characters using a simplified model of the human skeleton, applying skin and clothing models connected to the skeleton (a process called "rigging"), and define the animation sequences that their characters could follow (such as taking a step or raising a glass to take a drink). At last, the characters could be given simulated behaviors and schedules (very akin to a real person's daily routine) to follow as they move about the ruin, and dialog lines which they could speak to one another and/or the visiting player.

The project team is large and includes not only Indiana University's Virtual World Heritage Laboratory, but also the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University, plus dozens of other museums and academic institutions around the world. It took five years to develop the models and simulation, which were publicly demonstrated in November 2013.

Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the team plans to further enhance their work and to make it available online for the general public at no cost, within the next 12 to 18 months.

Nota bene: The article "NSF Funded Virtual Simulation of Hadrian's Villa" has more and higher quality screen captures, than the article. In particular, the models and textures of the article's photo are much more primitive, and that photo may represent a very early test version of the simulation. Take a look at both articles if you are interested in the project.

Disclaimer: Unity 3D, as well as the various operating systems and gaming platorms cited in this article, are trademarks of their respective owners and used here for reference only.