Wednesday 07 December 2016

How we recreated the Lost Palace of Whitehall on the streets of central London

This past summer, The Lost Palace allowed people to explore the lost Palace of Whitehall, 300 years after it burnt to the ground, of which only the Banqueting House remains.

Historic Royal Palaces worked with Chomko & Rosier, and a diverse team of collaborators including theatre makers Uninvited Guests, sound artist Lewis Gibson and app developers Calvium, to create an experience that allowed visitors to uncover the lost palace on the streets of central London.

The challenge at the heart of The Lost Palace was not only how to let a visitor explore a palace that no longer exists, but how to do this within a context as busy and complex as the streets of Whitehall. While Whitehall was once the seat of royal power, today it is the seat of government with politicians, tourists, police and the military negotiating one another between the dominant neo-classical architecture.

We chose to utilise this extraordinary public realm, referencing the current situation, blurring boundaries between past and present, real and imaginary, real-time and pre-recorded.

These conditions led us to create an audio-based experience that would allow visitors to wander the streets where the Palace of Whitehall once stood, and ‘tune in’ to the stories that were lost. The driving concept behind the experience was that the past is just beneath our feet - and through technology we could create the sensation of reaching down into that past.

We created a handheld device through which visitors could connect to the invisible layers of history within the streets, as if they were picking up on sounds and echoes still reverberating from the past.

A complex mix of technologies allowed this experience to happen. While sharing the basic mechanics of a location based game such as Pokemon Go, The Lost Palace device created a multi-sensory augmentation of the existing space, through haptics, immersive binaural audio, and the ability to perform actions within these historic environments.

Architectural installations were embedded in the public realm, creating moments where the Palace of Whitehall began to physically bleed back into the contemporary streets. Burnt oak replicas of the gothic doorways, archways and sculptures that once adorned Whitehall were placed where they once stood, juxtaposed with traffic lights and street signs, and held an integral role in the visitor's experience.

These installations were interfaces between past and present; embedded with hundreds of NFC (Near Field Communication) stickers, visitors were able to touch their device on the burnt wood to enter rich soundscapes. Visitors were able to touch the archway of the Great Hall and enter into the first performance of King Lear by Shakespeare to James I, or hold their devices against the Tudor posts in the Privy Garden to overhear passing gossip from the decadent Stuart court.

Where modern buildings lined up with the Palace’s footprint, they were incorporated into the experience. One wall of the Ministry of Defence stood in for the Palace wall, and visitors were given the chance to use their listening device as a parabolic microphone, pointing it at various windows of the MOD, picking up on the events that once happened in the rooms of the palace.

The audio itself also embodied this idea of worlds melding. The audio was recorded by placing microphones inside a dummy human head. By placing the microphones in the same place where human ears are, it allows the recording to convey an unimaginable spatiality and realism. The general information and navigation guide tracks were recorded on-site with this binaural technology, capturing all the footsteps and sirens, giving the guide voice a sense of presence and realism. At key moments in the experience, live audio from headphone-mounted microphones was layered into the soundscape, further melding the present into the past.

 

 

The Lost Palace feeds off the richness of its existing context. Rather than constructing a virtual world that is experienced in isolation, the virtual and the reality of contemporary Whitehall constantly interact visually, aurally and within the imagination. We believed this mixing of realities would create a more powerful form of Augmented Reality, and the visitor feedback appears to confirm this belief. Over 90% of users agreed or strongly agreed that the experience both “brought the history of the place and time to life” and “made me feel more connected to the place and its past”.

One visitor wrote "I was amazed how easily modern life drifted to the background whilst the past became more vivid and alive around me." To have created a ‘vivid’ historical experience of a palace that largely no longer physically exists, suggests our approach succeeded. An approach where a simulated environment such as The Lost Palace is embedded in the reality of a vibrant public realm. It is this entwining of realities that brought The Lost Palace to life.

The Lost Palace was is currently shortlisted for an IxDA Award in the Engaging category. It was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces and was designed by Chomko & Rosier in collaboration with Uninvited Guests, Lewis Gibson and Calvium. It ran from July 21st - September 4th 2016 starting at the Banqueting House in London, the last remaining building of the Palace of Whitehall. The Lost Palace will return in 2017. For more information visit Historic Royal Palaces.

 

 

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