Exploring a Roman house in VR

An innovative research project has used 3D models and eye-tracking technology in conjunction with virtual reality to investigate how architects designed Roman houses, and how these spaces were experienced by visitors.

Ancient literary sources suggest that ‘visual experience’ (that is, where viewers’ attention was focused) played an important role in Roman domestic architecture, with many houses carefully designed to emphasise or hide different elements, and architectural tricks employed in order to highlight the power and status of the owner, such as the use of angled walls and raised floors to make the interior appear bigger to people looking in from the front door. Previous work has attempted to explore Roman houses through this lens, but analysis is limited by the loss of many of the original design details built into these spaces. However, this new study – led by Danilo Marco Campanaro and Giacomo Landeschi from Lund University – adopted a novel approach, using spatial analysis and eye-tracking to investigate which features captured visitors’ attention as they moved through a Roman home.

A new project by researchers from Lund University has used 3D-modelling (RIGHT) and virtual-reality technology (BELOW) to investigate how Roman visitors would have experienced the House of the Greek Epigrams (BELOW RIGHT).
A new project by researchers from Lund University has used 3D-modelling (above) and virtual-reality technology (below) to investigate how Roman visitors would have experienced the House of the Greek Epigrams. Images: Danilo M Campanaro and Giacomo Landeschi.

The project was focused on the House of the Greek Epigrams, a large, high-status home in Pompeii. The two-storey building covered an area of almost 650m2, and many of the walls were decorated with colourful frescoes featuring mythical scenes and text from Greek poems. In order to explore how this lavish home was experienced by Roman viewers, researchers first used 3D-modelling software to create a reconstruction of the house. This 3D model was based on information from an earlier Lund University project that digitally mapped a neighbourhood in Pompeii, in combination with records from the excavation of the house and other information about Roman architecture. This 3D reconstruction was then imported into Unity – a cross-platform game engine used to create virtual reality (VR) experiences in video games, such as the augmented reality game Pokémon GO – so that it was possible to explore the model as a VR experience. As lighting played an integral role in how the domestic space would have been experienced, researchers selected two specific scenarios: dawn on the winter solstice and noon on the summer solstice. The house was then explored in VR by volunteers using a headset with an embedded eye-tracker that was used to measure their attention and monitor what caught their eyes as they toured the house.

This eye-tracker data was imported into a 3D GIS (Geographic Information System) environment, so that researchers could analyse the volunteers’ gaze, fixation, and movement while they were inside the virtually reconstructed house, and determine what areas, objects, frescoes, and other architectural features the users looked at first and most frequently. The study enabled researchers to identify areas with higher levels of visual attention and demonstrated how the house was designed to stimulate the visitors’ senses in order to convey a message about wealth and status. The new approach also made it possible to analyse factors such as how illumination and light conditions influenced the social experience of elements like graffiti and wall paintings.

The House of the Greek Epigrams. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Mentnafunangann.

The researchers emphasise that there are still many unanswered questions about how visitors interacted with the house, such as which spaces were visible to visitors, and how house design and visual space contributed to the domestic social atmosphere. Giacomo Landeschi has suggested that the next step could be to overlap the results of this study with other multisensory research, incorporating what visitors would have smelled and heard as they experienced these domestic spaces. Nonetheless, this exciting approach represents an important milestone in understanding the choices made by Roman architects when building these houses and seeing how visitors might have experienced and interacted with them. The research has now been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.12).

TEXT: Amy Brunskill.