Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it has to be trivial

Earlier this week I had the privilege of spending a day with colleagues at the Roma Tre University in Rome (www.diped.it), discussing ideas for possible collaborative projects.  We had a wonderfully creative brainstorming session, which culminated in some very exciting ideas, such as developing a model for the provision of adult literacy education through museums, using a range of technologies.

Inspired by this very exciting conversation, and energised by indecent quantities of cappuccino, I headed off to participate in the much-advertised ‘Virtual Rome’ tour, held in a museum near the Colosseum.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

I was expecting to see the story of the Ancient Roman gladiators brought to life with state-of-the-art use of technology, and felt a combination of anticipation and dread at the idea of being immersed in this real-life game of life-and-death.

The Virtual Rome tour advertisement

The Virtual Rome tour advertisement

What actually followed was rather disappointing. The tour started with a presentation by a guide dressed up in a toga, pointing at a giant-size map of the Colosseum on the wall  and explaining what the various parts of the site were used for. So far so conventional. We then followed the guide into a darkened room, and here ensued the only truly interesting part of the tour: when the lights came on we discovered that we were standing on a glass floor, overlooking an excavated tunnel. The clever lighting and the carefully-placed artefacts, together with the audio commentary on our headphones, gave us the feeling that we were literally amongst the gladiators as they prepared to enter the stadium.

We were then ushered into a small cinema and given 3D glasses, at which point our senses were assaulted by Disney-type figures speaking in Shrek-like voices. The main protagonist, who looked like a cross between Pavarotti and Homer Simpson, was  dressed in a toga and was rushing here, there and everywhere in the virtual, 3D space in front of us, inadvertently getting into trouble and having to run for his life as he meandered his way through street markets and public executions, and played peeping Tom on the Vestal Virgins tending the eternal fire, in a cartoony Ancient Rome. It was almost a relief when, after 15 minutes he accidentally ended up on the stadium grounds of the Colosseum, having to duck and dive between dozens of hectic gladiator pairs and their referees, and it seemed for a moment that that might be the end of him. (It wasn’t of course, and the story eventually just fizzled out.)

The virtual tour concluded with all participants being trapped in a basement room which was just a huge souvenir shop. We were given the opportunity to dress up in togas and play gladiator games, but no-one in our group of adult tourists seemed interested, and most were just eager to find the exit as soon as possible.

I went away feeling conned and belittled by a show that didn’t seem to take its audience – or its story – seriously. The story of gladiators who were pitted against friends that they had trained with over years; the story of an emperor who manipulated his people by indicating with a mere curl of his thumb that a gladiator should be killed, and then dramatically giving in to the crowd’s roar of ‘Mite, Mite!’ (‘Mercy, mercy!’) to show his magnanimity; the story of the depletion of Northern Africa’s tigers and lions for the savage entertainment of the ancient Romans… All these powerful stories were trivialised and lost in the translation to virtual reality.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Roma cat

Text and photos by Gabi Witthaus, 7 May 2010

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