The catacombs known as St. Paul’s in Rabat are one of the most popular Maltese attractions among tourists and locals alike. However, whether for conservation reasons or because they’re now too dangerous to reach, 70% of the underground chambers are out of bounds or physically inaccessible. Now, a new technology is helping to change that.
Lecturers at St. Martin’s Institute of Higher Education, in collaboration with Heritage Malta, have devised a Virtual Reality system which takes you on a tour of Rabat’s eerily beautiful subterranean cemetery. This follows the not-for-profit partnership the two had entered a few years ago to explore new ways technology could be used to enhance visitors’ experience. Soon, whether you have accessibility difficulties, issues with claustrophobia, or just can’t make it to the catacombs, it will all stop being a barrier.
This is not the first time that the institute has embarked on an ambitious project of the kind. It had embarked on creative computing specialisation all the way back in 2006, and this new VR experience follows another similar experience developed two years ago. That prototype, however, had real-life barriers and fences where users would have to turn around and find an alternative route. This new technology removes any and all obstacles, creating a “drone-like effect” where users can hover over to openings in chamber walls which are physically inaccessible. You can even adjust the brightness of the light within the chambers, in case you want to have a proper look at the haunting interiors.
Dylan Seychell, who’s the researcher and the Head of the Computing Department at the Institute, noted that VR experiences of this kind will not really discourage people from visiting the actual sites, but have actually been proven to make them want to visit the real thing even more. And with VR renders this accurate, it’s very easy to see why.
The Catacombs’ VR experience will be launched on the 27th of July at the Institute in Ħamrun, as part of an event discussing technology’s influence on the exploration and experiencing of cultural heritage. Tonight, a free talk and presentation about the entire process, along with demos and experiments, will also be hosted. Plans of turning similar experiences into educational video games in the future were also mentioned, so these two events would be the perfect time to get more information on that too.
Dylan Seychell, along with Mark Bugeja (a former student who’s now a lecturer), is working on a very similar VR experience for the recently-refurbished Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. For that project, Seychell and Bugeja have said they aim to even make certain parts of the site which are under neighbouring houses accessible, so get ready to explore parts of Malta’s heritage we previously had no way of getting to!
For more information on this project, you can contact the Institute on 21 235 451 or [email protected] .