The Lost Palace: Making the magic work

The Lost Palace, a temporary augmented reality attraction in Whitehall, which is open over the summer, has redefined the possiblities for historic sites whose buildings no longer exist writes Jo Reid

If you’ve been to Whitehall recently, you might have spotted groups of people wandering around clutching strange objects and staring upwards with a smile on their face and a wondrous look in their eye. While these people are not catching Pokemon as you might expect, they are experiencing augmented reality.

‘The Lost Palace’ is a collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces, theatre makers Uninvited Guests, interaction designers Chomko & Rosier and us, creative technologists and app developers, Calvium.

Through the use of technology, brilliant content and the wonderfully creative minds of the partners involved in this project, together we were able to build an experience of a heritage site that has never before had a visitor. Why? Because it no longer exists after burning to the ground more than 300 years ago.

So, how do you create an experience of a place when it’s no longer there?

The Experience

Using a combination of bespoke handheld devices, binaural 3D sound and haptic technology, visitors are led on an immersive adventure that allows them to hear, touch and feel the past. In mapping The Lost Palace over modern day Whitehall, visitors are navigating a located experience from another time, experiencing history in the exact locations where it happened.

Book your ticket and on arrival you’re handed a wooden object with headphones attached to wear. As you walk, the sounds and stories of The Lost Palace wash over you, leading you on your journey around Whitehall. At points in the story, your handheld object becomes a wand for listening to secret conversations, the beating heart of the doomed king, and the torch that sets the palace ablaze.

With immersive experience such as this, the most effective technology should be unnoticeable; so seamless you don’t even register it as the story takes over. Our aim is for audiences to be wooed by the magic of the experience, so much so that their minds rarely wander to the ‘who’s behind it’.

Having said this, just because you don’t notice it doesn’t mean it is not there – and we were thrilled to be asked to figure out how to make the magic happen.

The Technology Behind the Magic

As an experience, we were keen to avoid giving visitors a screen to stare at; it needed to feel like it was connected to the geography, and not like something you could have done at home. Instead, we wanted to encourage visitors to look around and paint the image of the palace on the current landscape of Whitehall. Adding to this, Chomko & Rosier encased the phones in sleek wooden boxes for participants to carry and use as props in the experience.

Without a screen, we had to be clever with identifying and recovering from any 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 fall back without the user knowing – to maintain the magic of the experience.

As the experience was being led by a narrative voice, any communication with the user needed to maintain the tone and atmosphere of the story, without disrupting the flow.

We always design our experiences to be flexible, so that users are free to move as they wish, but without a screen to communicate with users, this process took additional planning, iteration and testing to get it right, and to close all possible open ends in the experience.

The Result

At the start of this project we were asked to fuse together the artistic desires of two different concepts of The Lost Palace experience (the haptic technology and the audio trail) and provide the technology platform to do so. The result of which needed to be robust enough in time for a high profile, live launch date. In doing so we learnt a lot about how to manage expectations of artists, how to push the boundaries of experience without compromising robustness, how to provide the right tools for managing and running the event over the multiple runs and how to ensure seamless technology.

With the tireless work, expertise and brilliant ideas of all the partners involved in The Lost Palace – we believe we have helped create an experience that is unique and that manages to successfully marry theatre and technology to create a brilliantly captivating encounter. As

Museum Next founder Jim Richardson puts it: “The result is a triumph and shows the benefits of both collaboration and investing in R&D. What could have been another unremarkable museum app is instead something truly memorable and immersive.”

Tickets for The Lost Palace are on sale on the Historic Royal Palaces website. The Lost Palace will be running from 21 July – 4 September 2016.