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The Lost Palace: Bringing history to life through augmented reality

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From July to September 2016, visitors flocked to London to explore the hidden spaces of Whitehall Palace for Historic Royal PalacesThe Lost Palace. There, they interacted with the rich history of a site which saw the executions of Guy Fawkes and Charles I, performances by Shakespeare and the reign of Elizabeth I.

Extra special was the fact that—despite its historical longevity and significance—the building was only recently made accessible to the public. After all, Whitehall Palace burned to the ground more than 300 years ago. The site was brought to life by engaging performance, great design and location-based AR, powered by Calvium.

We caught up with Tim Powell from Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), to find out more about the project and how Calvium—alongside the hugely-talented theatre company Uninvited Guests and wonderful designers Chomko & Rosier—helped create something beautiful from nothing.

The project

Heritage sites often talk about bringing history to life, but HRP were interested in making that more literal than most, using sound and location to create an immersive, engaging experience for visitors. There was a conscious effort to move away from a screen-based experience: the tour needed to feel like it was connected to the geography, not just like something you could have done at home.

It was both a sensory and logistical challenge. As Tim explains:

“The challenge for us was in using people’s senses to connect them with the past and deliver an experience in a way that allowed them to explore the space without a traditional screen. We wanted the content to respond to the way visitors moved, the way they interacted and the choices they made.

“We had the places where this history happened, but the area now is a formal, bland and bureaucratic bit of London—very, very different from anything that would be considered a normal heritage experience. We didn’t want The Lost Palace to be just a history lesson, but to offer a sense of what happened there and the emotion attached: to connect in a way that was engaging and interesting.”

The creative process

The decision to create an aural tour threw up a number of challenges: we had to be clever with identifying and recovering from errors, largely without user interaction. The system had to pre-emptively understand whether parts of the story had been missed, or whether something had gone wrong, and serve an appropriate fallback without the user knowing – to maintain the magic of the experience.

With such a complex project, the real value was to be involved right from the beginning, planning, testing and designing with the other collaborators from the outset. We looked at the bigger picture; how the story would work across the different areas, then analysed each interaction at a granular level, assessing how every element would meld together in real life.

And with a route which in total covered around a mile, we had to be sure that the whole experience gelled.

“Each individual reaction was built first as a prototype and then tested with real people on location and then either refined or discarded if it worked or not,” says Tim. “There were months of testing, and Calvium were great at producing prototypes of interactions that we were able to test rather than churning out something that we were then stuck with. It was a very responsive process.

“We were taking people on a route which required them to turn right and left at the right place, go down the right alley etc., across the road without getting knocked over and so it was quite a complex set of instructions without getting visual maps printed. But the whole event turned out better than we could have ever expected.”

The results

The project was commissioned in Winter 2015, and The Lost Palace tour launched in June 2016—an incredibly short turnaround time for such an ambitious project. Nevertheless, customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

“We conducted some visitor research after the event,” Tim says. “And there are three bits of feedback I’m most proud of. Firstly, we asked people to rate whether the experience was unique to other experiences they’ve had at visitor attractions, and the percentage of people who either strongly agreed or agreed was 93%.

“We asked whether the experience brought the history of this time and place to life, that was 92% strongly agree or disagree. And then we asked whether the experience made them feel more connected to the past and the history, the results there were 90%.

“And personally, away from the customer feedback, the real joy was watching people on the tour. It was quite rich and quite strange, actually—the sight of 20 people clambering round an installation, touching an object to it and then being spoken to by William Shakespeare or Guy Fawkes or Elizabeth I was quite something. And the reactions of passers-by in Whitehall have been a thrill to watch because it’s been quite a spectacle. It really grabs the attention.

“It’s been a really special project; fantastic. And it’s been such a success that we very much intend for it to return in 2017. So thank you.”

The Lost Palace hasn’t only been enjoyed by the public. Professional body The Interaction Design Association have since shortlisted the project for the 2017 LxD Awards in the ‘engagement’ category – a worthy accolade indeed!

Keep your eyes peeled for the Lost Palace experience returning in 2017. And for more information on how we could help bring your heritage project to life, get in touch.