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A Virtual Reality App that Reconstructs Ancient Rome May Have Exploited Its Developers

The virtual reality tour of Rome at the heart of Rome Reborn started as a digital humanities project collaboratively developed by dozens of artists, classicists, archaeologists, and 3D modelers.

The west side of the Roman forum as seen in the virtual reality program called Rome Reborn (all images courtesy Flyover Zone Productions unless otherwise noted)

Even those visiting the ruins of the Roman Forum within the city of Rome today find it hard to envision the sheer magnitude of the marble, brick, and wooden structures that the populace of ancient Rome interacted with on a daily basis. However, a new virtual reality program called Rome Reborn allows easier access to the city than ever before — using either virtual reality headsets like Oculus Go or other digital devices.

Ancient Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Rome Reborn. Since 1996, the Rome Reborn project has depended upon dozens of researchers to build sophisticated three dimensional models of antique structures that capture the dynamic architectural history of the Eternal City. Details such as painted (i.e. polychromatic) marbles and statues have been painstakingly inserted into the urban city plan. As a result, not only the structures, but also the vibrant color of the ancient world have been revivified. Helmed by project director and classicist Bernard Frischer, the ultimate goal of the project is to rebuild a shifting, interactive model of the city that extends from just before its mythical founding date in 753 BCE to the middle of the reign of the late Roman emperor Justinian around 550 CE, during the period of the Gothic Wars. Right now, viewers are limited to a bird’s eye flyover of the entire city, a tour of the Roman Forum, and a walk-through of the Basilica of Maxentius in the early 4th century CE.

A view of Rome from the air within Rome Reborn
Towards the center of the city

The current model open to viewers explores the city at a time when we have some of the best evidence for its plan. Rome Reborn presents the city as the emperor Constantine would have viewed it in the year 320 CE, though in a rather pristine condition largely free from the realities of dirt, traffic, and seething crowds that shaped any experience within late antique Rome. The period is a pivotal transition point in the ancient city wherein there would be a slow increase in early Christian buildings such as basilicas and churches intermixing with older structures within the urban landscape such as the Pantheon and the Roman Senate House. While over 7,000 buildings and monuments are known through literature, maps, and the surviving regionary catalogues of the city of Rome, one must also keep in mind that the current model still contains an significant amount of educated conjecture. We only have firm archaeological evidence for about 265 buildings and monuments from ancient Rome in that period.

Over two decades, the various versions of Rome Reborn have been developed by dozens of artists, classicists, archaeologists, and 3D modelers at numerous institutions. The virtual reality tour of the city started as a digital humanities project at the University of California at Los Angeles, where architectural historians like Diane Favro and 3D modelers such as Dean Abernathy contributed to its early development and later launch. Frischer then moved the project to the University of Virginia and then finally to Indiana University, while also developing a for-profit company that created games and media focused on ancient Rome.

A view of the interior of the Basilica Maxentius

While at the University of Virginia, Frischer worked heavily with computer scientist David Koller and at that time advocated for “open repositories” for 3D models of cultural heritage objects. The second class of models relied heavily on retexturing scans of the famed Plastico di Roma Antica, a sprawling plaster model constructed under the direction of Italo Gismondi from 1933 to 1974. It was at this time that Rome Reborn went from version 1.0 to 2.0, due in large part to the work of graduate students and cultural heritage specialists with expertise in 3D modeling, handsome federal and private grants, and aid from UVA’s The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, an early center within the field of digital humanities.

The model of Rome at the time of Constantine (306-337) made by Italo Gismondi between 1933 and 1937. This model 200 m long is presented at the Museum of Roman Civilization at EUR in Rome. It is at the scale 1/250 (image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikipedia)

Looking at the modest (but still not paltry) cost of the products connected to Rome Reborn, some digital humanists have questioned whether it is ethical to profit personally from a virtual project that has benefitted so mightily from the public investment in digital humanities and heritage preservation made over the last few decades. Although universities and funding agencies have developed mechanisms for allowing project directors to acquire the copyright to cultural heritage models, debates over this area of 3D modeling are still being waged. In comments to Hyperallergic, Ethan Gruber, now the Director of Data Science at the American Numismatics Society, noted his current unease with the project, which he previously worked on from 2007 to 2008, while at UVA:

As a staunch proponent of open data and open access to cultural heritage, I am disappointed to learn that the contributions made in good faith to promote the free and open proliferation knowledge have been commercialized. I am shocked that a project developed largely with taxpayer funding has been trademarked by a private company registered to Bernie Frischer himself.

A view of the east end of Roman Forum

Frischer Consulting, which operates under the name Flyover Zone Productions, owns the copyrights for Rome Reborn©. Earlier iterations of the project had received government funding from places like the NEH and NSF, and came about in part due to the labor and funds provided by large public universities such as UCLA, UVA, and now IU. This virtual reality experience reflects not just the splendor of Rome, but also how the incredible skills, thoughts, and ideas of students, teachers, and graphic designers coalesced into a digital model. Its collaborative origins, earlier authors, and the public funding that supported the preliminary models are largely glossed over on the product’s website. The “About/Contact” section of the current website only notes their reliance on “the advice of an international scientific advisory committee” and the program’s completion dates. “Version 1.0 of the Rome Reborn®  model was completed in 2007, 2.0 in 2008, 2.1 in 2010, 2.2 in 2012, and 3.0 in 2018.”

The current app’s cost through the iTunes store for the VR tour of the Roman Forum is $6.99, but not all iterations of the project have come at public expense. When Rome Reborn 2.0 was launched in 2008, it originally came in the form of a free and downloadable 3D Google Earth layer used widely by teachers in K-12 and elsewhere through the Google Earth browser. This layer is no longer available directly through Google Earth. While the current expense of the new VR products is not immense, they certainly are not free and will not be accessible to all. To offset this, Frischer has promised donations of Oculus Go headsets to a number of universities and primary schools. The website also has a “Community” section which Frischer noted in comments to Hyperallergic that he hopes teachers will use to request copies of the program and integrate it into their lesson plans.

The Pantheon plaza within called Rome Reborn

In the future, Rome Reborn plans to expand into the area of the Colosseum and sell an interactive experience centered on the Roman Pantheon, as well as other well-known sites in Rome. The project is itself a testament to how far the field of digital cultural heritage has come and will no doubt spark interest anew in 3D interactions with the cities of the past. Yet for all the majesty that this virtual experience brings, the project and its products still pose questions about how we cite and credit those who have developed long-term digital heritage projects over the longue durée, who should profit from their sale, and whether such cultural heritage content should be more available to the public in an open-access repository.

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