Geo-data is shaping VR: from catching Pokémon to visiting ancient worlds

Many of us will recall the stellar rise of Pokémon Go in the not so distant past. The idea was simple enough: port in some data from a map server (like Open Street Maps) and populate random spots on the grid with geotags in the guise of cute Japanese anime characters. Get to the place, switch on your camera, and hey presto, you can see the character on the footpath waiting to be caught.

I remember, in 2016, being woken in a dig house, in an out-of-the-way Turkish village where I was working on an archaeological project, to the sound of one of the students creeping out the door in the dead of the night. In the morning, when I politely enquired about where he had gone, he replied sheepishly that it was to go and catch a Bulbasaur. I remember being amazed that there were Pokémon creatures in this tiny village. I was there on a different mission.

I feverishly spent my days rendering out a different type of geo-tag. It was a prototype of an archaeologically accurate VR recreation of an ancient Roman building (a 2nd century AD basilica) on the nearby Acropolis. The concept was that this VR recreation would precisely match the ruins if you stood in a particular location. And it worked. The sensation was surreal, as if a veil had been lifted. Walls became complete, a ceiling appeared above me and a distant row of columns stretched out before me.

It was cool in this marble-veneered grand vestibulum. When I removed the headset I stood in direct summer sun surrounded by debris. And yet, the place would never be the same for me or the others who tried it. I’d found a way to map the reconstruction of the ruins directly to the mind’s eye.  Looking back, I may have vaguely recognised the connection between the student’s obsession with Pokémon Go and my experimental project, and lately, the more I dwell on the connection, the stronger it becomes.

We live in a time where geo-located data is becoming more and more pervasive in our daily lives. It’s gone far beyond simple directions on a map on our phones. Uber, Waze, Deliveroo, Yelp and other location sharing apps are successfully exploiting the invisible geo-data grid that encircles our earth and is tracked by the GPS technology on our phones.

Imagine you are exploring the streets of Rome, and as you pass by a nondescript, confusing pile of ruins, your smartphone or wearable sends you a haptic alert. You look at the screen of your device and see that you have stumbled upon an ancient wonder. You position yourself in a safe place, reach for your VR or AR device in your backpack and lift the glasses to your eyes. The modern world fades away, and you find yourself standing in an accurate, photorealistic 3D/360 geo-referenced recreation of what was once there. Above you towers a mighty arch, or a theatre, or a stadium, and around you are crowded tenement buildings.

Now you remove your glasses and look around. As if by magic, you can now completely understand these ruins not just for what they are, but also for what they once were. This place in the modern world will never be the same for you: the geolocated VR has enlightened you in a way that would only otherwise be possible with hundreds of hours of book learning.

But wait. Your haptic alert signals there are many more of these wonders within short walking distance. This is a world where geo-embedded digital cultural heritage VR exists in the cloud to be accessed when and where it is needed the most—a world where, instead of chasing Pokémon for points, we chase lost worlds and cast a light on the shadows of the past. This world is now. Better hurry… better catch ‘em all!