ARkit and Archaeology – Hougoumont Farm, Waterloo

For the last 3 years I have had the absolute privilege of being one of the archaeological directors of the current excavations of the battlefield of Waterloo. As part of the incredible project Waterloo Uncovered (http://www.waterloouncovered.com) – we have been taking wounded serving and veteran soldiers, students and professional archaeologists  to the battlefield to conduct the first major systematic excavation of parts of the battlefield that shaped the history of Europe in 1815.

We only have two weeks in the field each year, which means there is not a lot of time to doing anything but excavate, record and backfill (see the dig diaries and videos of all we got up to here). However, this year I managed to find the final afternoon to play with the new Apple ARkit and see what potential there is for archaeological sites.

The short answer is that there is a lot of potential! I have discussed Augmented Reality and archaeology to the nth degree on this blog and in other places (see here for a round-up) – but with the beta release of ARkit as an integrated part in iOS11, Apple may have provided the key to making AR more accessible and easier to deploy. I tried out two experiments using some of the data we have accrued over the excavations. Sadly I didn’t have any time to finesse the apps – but hopefully they should give a hint of what could be done given more time and money  (ahem, any prospective post-doc funders – my contact details are on the right).

Exploring the lost gardens of Hougoumont

The first video shows a very early experiment in visualising the lost gardens of Hougoumont. The farm and gardens at Hougoumont were famously defended by the Allied forces during the battle of Waterloo (18th June 1815). Hougoumont at the time was rather fancy, with a chateau building, large farms buildings and also a formal walled garden, laid out in the Flemish style. One of the participants this year, WO2 Rachel Willis, is currently in the process of leaving the army and studying horticulture at the Royal Horticultural Society. She was very excited to look at the garden and to see if it was possible to recreate the layout – and perhaps even at some point start replanting the garden. To that end she launched herself into the written accounts and contemporary drawings of Hougoumont and we visited a local garden that was set out in a similar fashion. Rachel is in the process of colouring and drawing a series of Charlie Dimmock style renditions of the garden plans for us to work from – but more on that in the future.

Gardens of Gaasbeek Castle

Similar gardens at Gaasbeek Castle

Extract from Wm. Siborne's survey

Extract from Wm. Siborne’s survey of the gardens at Hougoumont

As a very first stab at seeing what we might be able to do in the future, I quickly loaded up one of Rachel’s first sketches into Unity and put a few bushes and a covered walkway in. I then did some ARkit magic mainly by following tutorials here, here, and here. Bear in mind that at the time of writing, ARkit is in beta testing, which means you need to install Xcode Beta, sign up for and install the iOS 11 beta program for the iPhone and also run the latest beta version of Unity. It is firmly at the bleeding edge and not for the faint-hearted! However, those tutorial links should get you through fine and we should only have to wait a few months and it will be publicly released.  The results of the garden experiment are below:

As can be seen, the ARkit makes it very simple to place objects directly into the landscape OUTSIDE – something that has previously only really been possible reliably using a marker-based AR plugin (such as Vuforia). Being able to reliably place AR objects outside (in bright sunshine) has been somewhat of a holy grail for archaeologists, as unsurprisingly we often work outside.  I decided to use a ‘portal’ approach to display the AR content, as I think for the time being it gives the impression of looking through into the past – and gives an understandable frame to the AR content. More practically, it also means it is harder to see the fudged edges where the AR content doesn’t quite line up with the real world! It needs a lot of work to tidy up and make more pretty, but not bad for the first attempt – and the potential for using this system for archaeological reconstructions goes without saying! Of course as it is native in iOS and there is a Unity plugin, it will fit nicely with the smell and sound aspects of the embodied GIS – see the garden, hear the bees and smell the flowers!

Visualising Old Excavation Trenches

Another problem we archaeologists have is that it is very dangerous to leave big holes open all over the place, especially in places frequented by tourists and the public like Hougoumont. However, ARkit might be able to help us out there. This video shows this year’s backfilled trenches at Hougoumont (very neatly done, but you can just still see the slightly darker patches of the re-laid wood chip).

Using the same idea of the portal into the garden, I have overlaid the 3D model one of our previous trenches in its correct geographic location and scale, allowing you to virtually re-excavate the trench and see the foundations of the buildings underneath, along with a culverted drain that we found in 2016. It lines up very well with the rest of the buildings in the courtyard and will certainly help with understanding the further foundation remains we uncovered in 2017. Again, it needs texturing, cleaning and bit of lighting, but this has massive potential as a tool for archaeologists in the field, as we can now overlay any type of geolocated information into the real world. This might be geophysical data, find scatter plots or, as I have shown, 3D models of the trenches themselves.

These are just very initial experiments, but I for one am looking forward to seeing where this all goes. Watch this space!

 

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