Time Travel through History — to Preserve It [VR Update]

The Animajor team. Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

How much can you pack into a day-long holiday? Three or four of a city’s major sights? Maybe rushed tours of a couple of adjacent towns?

And what if you could traverse not just considerable geographical distances but also time epochs centuries apart in a matter of hours? One moment you could be taking a stroll down one of nineteenth-century Vienna’s main squares, next you are reading a book by the fireside at a lodge in the Swiss Alps of 2020. As quickly as you’d flip to the next TV channel, you could be sitting on a beach in the Maldives. The sun’s so realistic you are worried about getting a sunburn, so you find shelter in the interior of a fifth-century basilica, where the soft glow of the late afternoon sun feels soothing and mysterious. (The notable absence of glass windowpanes on nearby buildings lets you know you have time-traveled to the actual fifth century.)

Then you feel your stomach drop out from beneath you as you are hoisted to the space underneath the basilica’s roof, 20 feet above ground level…

Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

Virtual reality (VR) is not for the balance challenged, and jerkier movements and sudden shifts of perspective can be particularly unnerving. But VR can make you feel connected to a time and place that no longer exist. History in particular might benefit from VR reconstructions, according to Yavor Bonev, founder of Animajor Studios, the company behind the VR reconstruction of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis and the world’s first ever VR-enhanced city tour (of Vienna, Austria).

“VR isn’t an end goal in itself, but it helps to capture attention in an innovative way. It also allows people to develop emotional connections to past events,” Yavor says. “When you study World War II or the communist period, it’s just dry numbers. You can’t have an emotional connection to numbers. But if you can experience what it is like to be toiling away on Belene Island during peak mosquito season [Belene Island is the site of the notorious Belene labor camp during communist times, ed.], history is less likely to repeat itself.”

An ancient coin. Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

Creating ever more realistic—and emotional—virtual experiences is made possible by the constantly improving technologies behind VR. One example are VR headsets: although they have been around since the 1990s, “if you put on a pair of VR goggles back then, you’d probably get a seizure,” Yavor says, laughing. The quality wasn’t up to par. Today, VR technology has become so good, it successfully simulates operating theaters, raging fires, and combat conditions used in the training of surgeons, firefighters, and soldiers. That said, the gaming and entertainment industries have made the biggest use of VR so far, with its potential for other sectors only just beginning to unfold.

Kalina Atanasova. Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

A lot of work needs to happen before you get to the fancy computer graphics and balance-defying experiences, regardless of the industry. Good VR has to be grounded in research, Yavor says. Before you proceed to create a computer version of a medieval castle, you need to know what a medieval castle looks like, what it is made of, how the materials age, where sentries are located, etc. And the more sophisticated VR products rely on far more than computer graphics: they may make use of human actors, scripts, musical scores to heighten the mood, classical drawing, and some programmer’s sleight-of-hand.

“Research is foremost, especially when you are working on a historical subject,” says Kalina Atanasova, one of the team members who worked on the VR environments for the Bishop’s Basilica. Before delving into the actual animation, Kalina, Yavor, and the rest of the team talked to historians, archaeologists, and mosaic restorers to learn as much as possible about what the Basilica may have looked like. None of the original structure has been preserved to this day except for fragments of columns, capitals, and other architectural elements, so the team based the VR-reconstructed basilica’s appearance on other, surviving churches from the period and drawings of ancient basilicas made in earlier times.

Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

The team also wanted the VR environment of the Bishop’s Basilica to convey the spirituality of the place and make people feel the same way a citizen of ancient Plovdiv would have felt upon entering it. The result is staggering: the rich interior inspires awe, and the ubiquitous birds evoke the Garden of Eden. The time inside the Basilica seems to stand still, the air heavy with incense and a hallowed presence… You cannot remain unmoved, no matter what your relationship to faith is.

Yavor’s own emotional connection to art in all its forms was nurtured from an early age under the influence of an artist father—noted Bulgarian sculptor Theodore Bonev, whose bronze map of ancient Philippopolis can be seen at the Visitor Center of the Bishop’s Basilica and whose other work is part of private collections and public spaces all around the world. To reconcile his father’s legacy and the pull of new trends, Yavor studied both classical drawing and computer animation in London. The Bonevs also lived in New Zealand, Saint Martin, and the Czech Republic, which helped Yavor develop a global outlook and a strong portfolio of international clients.

The reconstructed Basilica interior

But it was in his native Bulgaria that he started fulfilling his dreams a decade ago.

He founded Animajor Studios in Sofia in 2011. Initially, the company found a niche creating 3D hologram animations for the global advertising industry. Later, it expanded its product lineup to include AR and VR animation to respond to the growing demand for immersive experiences. Today, Yavor estimates Animajor has done work for virtually every major global brand. The company has a core team of seven people, but it often uses freelance help for bigger projects. (The Vienna tour took ten months to complete, with seven people from the team working on it almost full-time and more than 50 actors using artistic performance to reenact history. The Basilica tour required four months of steady work by four team members.)

Yavor Bonev. Photo: Yuliyan Hristov

The company portfolio includes more than 100 animations for hologram displays; a VR tour of a village in Champagne, France; animations for prime real estate; AR entertainment for malls and tourist attractions; and an innovative supermarket in which cameras take snapshots of the products you select and your bank card gets charged automatically. The Bishop’s Basilica project and the Vienna city tour are the most recent additions to the company’s offerings, and Yavor says he hopes to do more of them in the future. Animajor is also dabbling in gaming, with the team working on its own in-house project, a game called Tiny Battles, which they hope to launch in the near future.

Are we going to do everything in VR in the future?

Yavor dismisses the idea. “People are afraid that VR will become more attractive and people will want to spend all their time there. I think VR is a tool,” he says.

Whether it is to bring history to life, simulate hazardous conditions for training purposes, fight phobias such as fear of heights, or highlight important contemporary themes, VR isn’t about escaping reality but about making it better.

And it isn’t about packing as many experiences as you can into your day, but about allowing you to fully experience something that might otherwise be inaccessible—or in danger of being forgotten.

The VR tour of the Bishop’s Basilica is available at the Visitor Center of the Basilica in Plovdiv. Follow the Bishop’s Basilica @ https://www.facebook.com/bishopsbasilica/ and https://www.instagram.com/bishopsbasilica/

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