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using Virtual Reality and Archaeoacoustic Analysis to Study and exhibit Presence

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VRAASP (using Virtual Reality and Archaeoacoustic Analysis to Study and exhibit Presence)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

What is the problem/issue being addressed?

The unusual acoustic signatures of ancient or historical spaces, such as the West Kennet Long Barrow in England; caves in northern Spain containing prehistoric art; or Sculptor's Cave in Scotland, have captured the public imagination for centuries. Attentive listeners often hear or feel a presence or resonance within such acoustic spaces, sometimes described as an otherness, a shimmer or glow, or an audio-visual aesthetic experience of the space. The perception of presence is especially common in historically sacred locations (and shimmer is a characteristic descriptor of the spiritual realm), and thus acoustic analysis of the phenomenology of presence provides insight into the source of this experience. This project asked what is the phenomenology of sound presence in historical and ancient spaces? Visitors to archaeological sites are often attracted to them in a way they find difficult to identify, there is a sense of presence, especially at more ancient sites, that is difficult to define. Heritage professionals have often presented such sites to the public in a way principally driven by the visual and material, such sites are often silent, or at least their interpretation and presentation is largely silent. Even audio tours are usually silenced by placing them in headphones. This is the case even though the cultures that they feature were often oral or aural cultures, with limited written culture. The research explored what are the acoustic signatures of sound presence? What sorts of cultural, listening, and acoustic ecological awarenesses can be gained through the modern experience of the sound presence of the past?

What are the overall objectives?

The overall objectives were to create a toolkit, a set of processes, practices, methods, approaches, and skills, that could be used to explore sound presence. These have included skills in 3D modelling; interactive design; acoustic testing; acoustics analysis; acoustic modelling; musical composition; presentation; teaching; public engagement; academic publishing; music technology; and recording and production. Specific objectives included the composition and performance of musical works at a professional level; presentation of work as academic texts such as journal articles; presentation of the work to an academic audience through conference papers at key events; and dissemination of the work through public engagement. A number of pieces were composed, papers written and presented, and a web blog presented the work to a wider audience.

Why is it important for society?

In order to understand who we are today, at a time when identities are confused in a post-historical culture, it is hugely important to have an understanding of who we were, where we came from, and what it is that makes us human. Archaeological and heritage sites have an important role to play in this quest, but they can sometimes be interpreted as dry, as lacking feeling, spirit, presence. This dryness is in contrast to the richness of their acoustic ecology, and is fed by a silent visual presentation, whereas the way we experience a site is a fused combination of looking and listening. Drawing upon the cultures of video games through the use of 3D interactive technology, this project provides a new level of engagement, by enveloping the heritage visitor, audience member, or digital user, in a sonically rich, artistically crafted world, providing deep listening experiences to audio experiences, taking them into the presence of a phenomenological experience, and addressing them directly in an embodied manner, rather than an intellectual dialectic. This approach is of vital importance to the heritage world. It also addresses a similar lack of presence in some concert experiences, in particular within the world of avant-garde contemporary musical compositions. Such works eschew connection with mainstream cultural and musical content, in order to seek new experiences, but this runs the risk of a disconnect from cultural references. This project calls from a highly alien world, due to the large temporal distance from its inspiration, a distance that affords a cultural connection that is separate from the deconstructed mass semiotic imagery of popular culture. It also engages with acoustics, enhancing the dots on the page of score by engagement with the space in which music is made, contributing to contemporary musical culture.
Through this project, the ER developed skills in 3D visual and acoustical modelling, VR simulation, numeracy, data analysis, sound reinforcement, publication preparation, presentation, and dissemination. Throughout the fellowship, the ER 1) undertook fieldwork, 2) submitted research for publication in peer-reviewed journals, 3) presented at 2 conferences, 4) participated in 3 training workshops on spatial audio, acoustic modelling, and texturing and retopology 5) made 3 university visits and presentations of the project, 6) composed and presented works on the research results in concert and installation settings, and 7) moderated a project blog.

In the first phase of the fellowship (18 months), the ER diversified her individual competencies by learning to use and acoustically analyse 3D models of archaeological sites and spaces. In the second phase of the fellowship (6 months), the ER created immersive installations and spectral music compositions based on the results of the project research. These works served as both conceptualisations and public dissemination of the new knowledge, and demonstrated that the sources identified are necessary and sufficient to generate sound presence.

The outputs of the project were disseminated in the following ways:

1) Manuscripts have been submitted for publication. The first paper outlines a new analysis and results of acoustic testing that explore the frequency spectrum and acoustic properties of the Hypogeum. We identify a set of harmonically-related frequency peaks and show that these frequencies can be reproduced by a finite-differencing simulation. The second is a summary of the field work and acoustic analysis.
2) Conference presentations at European Association of Archaeologists and the Theoretical Archaeology Group
3) Academic presentations at Ambient @40, International Composers Festival, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM), and Creative Coding Lab (CCL)
4) Practice-led outputs presented at Electric Spring (UK), Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2018 and 2019 (UK), International Composers Festival (USA), and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity(CA).
5) Historical sound experiences, tutorials, and project resources were disseminated using the project blog.
The proposed project, action, and approach advanced the fields of cultural heritage interpretation, exhibition, display, and design through the analysis and creation of immersive, virtual reality (VR), and spectral representations of archaeological sites. It generated new knowledge on the phenomenology and psychoacoustics of archaeological spaces, and advanced the fields of music archaeology, acoustic ecology, music technology, and contemporary music. It improved the experience of virtual public exhibitions through the promotion, dissemination and experience of virtual archaeological spaces imbued with their original sense of presence.