It was the smell that hit me first, a heady mixture of roasting meat, woodsmoke, and farmyard manure. Nearby I could hear a low murmured conversation—but the words were muffled and unclear. I could see piles of stones clustered across the edge of a bleak Cornish moorland hillside and an ominous raincloud gathering over the closest hill.
But there were no houses, no people, and no welcome barbecue. With freezing fingers I held up my iPad, viewing the landscape through the camera feed. I saw the icons change as the GPS recognized my position and, as if by magic, the houses began to appear, each one loading onto the screen, materializing in position above the round piles of prehistoric stone. Using the screen as a guide, I picked my way through the virtual settlement, walking around the houses as if they were real. As I walked toward one, the sound of the conversation got louder, and I could hear the crackling of a fire. The smell of the meat got stronger, filling my nostrils and making my mouth water. I reached the door, and looked inside, expecting to feel the heat of a welcome fire and the shelter of the roof. But all I saw was a rendered straw floor. And as I lowered the iPad, I saw again a pile of stones no higher than my knee, arranged in a circle with a gap for a doorway. The raincloud is getting closer.
This was my experience during testing a prototype augmented-reality application I designed to allow an embodied exploration of past landscapes. I built the system using low-cost materials and cheap or free software. I’m an archaeologist, and I am particularly interested in finding out what it was like to live in the past. (I'm calling the app Dead Men’s Eyes, a name that comes from a short story by Montague Rhodes James in which a man discovers a pair of old binoculars made by an eccentric antiquarian. When he looks through them, he is shown a world that no longer exists, and sees grisly scenes from the past.)