Reviewed June 2019
Chantal Sulkow, Acquisitions Librarian
Bard Graduate Center Library
Rome Reborn is a series of applications and video products for virtual reality headsets and computers allowing users to visit Ancient Rome in the year 320 AD. Featuring recreations of long-vanished buildings and monuments, Rome Reborn attempts to reconstruct the past through the use of VR technology. The project offers virtual tours of the Roman Forum, a Flight over Ancient Rome, the Pantheon, and the Basilica of Maxentius, with more tours coming soon. A VR headset is not necessary to run Rome Reborn, and video simulations are available for both Mac and PC, though the optimal experience is undoubtedly the VR format. Described as designed for ages 6-96, Rome Reborn is appropriate for users ranging from tourists to educators, and from young students to advanced scholars.
Voiceover narration is provided by scholars including Rome Reborn’s creator, digital archaeologist Dr. Bernard Frischer, and Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of Smarthistory. Narrations are brief, yet rich with valuable historical information, and the graphics, details and colors in the simulated reconstructions are remarkably rendered. One of the most evocative features of Rome Reborn is the “time warp” option, enabling the user to toggle between the rebuilt ancient world and that of modern day. The sight of a seventeenth Century Baroque church materializing as a Roman temple fades into ruins creates an eerie and poignant sense of having truly traveled through time.
Rome Reborn, a project that has been in development since 1997, has plans for continued expansion. New sections are underway, with the Colosseum, Imperial Palace and Imperial Fora coming soon. Rome Reborn also plans to offer open-world VR, which would enable users to move at will through virtual space. In the present version, Rome Reborn users are tethered to a fixed vantage point; adding open-world functionality would enhance the experience considerably. Additionally, the company plans to support multi-user functionality, which would lay the groundwork for potential collaboration in education. The multi-user feature would dovetail with Rome Reborn’s current Community feature, in which users create free accounts, connect in an online forum, take knowledge assessments, and earn achievement awards.
Rome Reborn is not the only available VR product focused on cultural heritage preservation. Lithodomus also provides virtual reality reconstructions of the ancient world, but offers a more fully developed product including customizable content, with apps are available for mobile phones. Google Open Heritage’s collaboration with CyArk, whose focus has been digitizing monuments and world heritage sites for preservation in case of destruction or loss, is another similar product. Rome Reborn is not yet available for mobile platforms; their products are available for a cost, at a range of prices, though educational rates are available through Apple and Microsoft.
Early versions of Rome Reborn were available cost-free through Google Earth, and the shift to a paid version has contributed to controversy, as described in an article published in Hyperallergic earlier this year. Over nearly two decades Rome Reborn was collaboratively developed by artists, scholars, and 3D modelers, and supported by universities and taxpayer funded grants; critics have expressed displeasure with the direction the project has taken, and at the amount of credit given to contributors. Dr. Frischer has responded, noting that when the Hyperallergic article was published, plans to make open access versions available were already in the works. A more comprehensive section crediting contributors has been posted on the website, and an open access video link is now on the website’s homepage, although the core products remain fee-based. While future developments for Rome Reborn remain to be seen, the controversy is a reminder of ongoing debates over the ethics of charging for cultural heritage and educational content and the feasibility of keeping these ventures in the open access arena.
There exist some technological quirks and inconsistencies: audio narration in the Oculus Go headset version, which was tested for this review, sometimes starts mid-sentence, and the menu hovers in a fixed spot, on occasion obstructing one’s view. Wayfinding can be improved; there is no “back” option, forcing the user to restart sections to return to previous screens. As development continues, though, it is easy to imagine that these issues can be resolved.
Lauded by educators, Rome Reborn was recently nominated for a 2019 VR Award in the Education and Training category. With its innovative use of technology and high resolution graphics, Rome Reborn takes full advantage of the immersive virtual reality experience to simulate a deep dive into the ancient past. The project has room to grow and improve, but in both an educational and recreational capacity, this is a resource that makes worthy advances in the field of cultural heritage preservation.