Sharjah unveils VR tech for Unesco World Heritage site application
American University of Sharjah is working on the project, focused on Wadi Al Helo
The historical story of Wadi Al Helo – one of Sharjah’s Unesco World Heritage-nominated cultural heritage sites – is being told using a virtual reality (VR) application developed by the management office of Sharjah: The Gateway to Trucial States (SGTS) and American University of Sharjah (AUS). The move comes as Sharjah works to highlight its role in the region’s economic and political history.
SGTS is the city’s bid to include eight of its cultural heritage sites on the prestigious list of World Heritage Sites by Unesco.
Besides the historic village in Wadi El Helo, the nomination also includes the historic town of Sharjah (Heart of Sharjah), Al Hisn, Al Mahatta Airport, Al Mirgab Camp, Al Dhaid, Fili Forts, and Khor Fakkan archaeological site.
This is a first-of-its-kind collaboration aimed at preserving Sharjah’s heritage sites, supported by both SGTS and AUS.
The virtual reality project was implemented by the AUS’s College of Architecture, Art and Design (Caad), under the supervision of Dr Varkki Pallathucheril, dean of Caad, and Zlatan Filipović, associate professor of art and design, and interim head of the department of art and design at Caad.
SGTS's management office director, Khuloud Alhouli, said: “We initiated this VR project with a pilot case of Wadi El Helo as part of the SGTS strategic vision to communicate the uniqueness of these sites to the world. At the same time, we wanted to create an opportunity for the young generation to explore and engage in authentic Emirati heritage through the utilisation of modern technology and virtual reality [tools] that appeal to them.”
Wadi Al Helo, with its historic village and several watchtowers, played an essential role in the history of Sharjah and is considered an important cultural site in the UAE. Surrounded by the mountains along the caravan route, the valley was secured by watchtowers located at its entrance to protect it from raiders. Known as a safe haven, it allowed its communities to work in agriculture and then export their products to coastal areas.
The SGTS-AUS collaboration includes Filipović, Pablo Dornhege from Berlin University of Arts in Germany, and Felix H Beck from New York University Abu Dhabi, in cooperation with the New York university’s NTSI Lab.
Commenting on the project, Filipović said: “Our intention was to use VR technology to bring to life the stories of the historic valley. This was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how storytelling through VR can be used to enhance the way we understand the world, both past, present, and future.”
As an example of reactive immersive cinema – which aims to move the audience from being mere spectators to actual participants in the story – the audience is positioned at a media station in the middle of several pre-recorded 360° videos. This allows individuals to experience the landscape of Wadi Al Helo, while an interface with a rotational button allows them to pan across sections of the video.
The ongoing SGTS research project uses other new technologies, such as photogrammetry, hypermedia, and user-experience design, to create new ways of interacting with the various stories bound in the history of the valley.