Placemaking 2020: the future of the heritage experience

What constitutes the past – and how we imagine the future – is continually changing. Heritage no longer just refers to castles and dungeons; instead, the term now includes anywhere that has meaning for inhabitants and visitors, from city parks to the streets of Soho.

This change brings with it unique challenges and opportunities. Heritage professionals must balance the preservation of an ever-increasing historical canon with a widening pool of visitors who expect to be engaged in surprising ways.

A decade ago, the launch of the iPhone changed the way we communicate and interact with each other forever. Now, we are within touching distance of a future in which today’s fledgling technologies do the same for how we experience the physical world around us.

Here are some of our predictions, hopes, and imaginings for the future of digital placemaking.


Augmented reality offers an enthralling way to breathe life into heritage sites, immersing visitors in the sights and sounds of historical places.

At the moment, the missing piece of the puzzle is touch. The basics are already here in the form of vibrating smartphone devices and games controllers, but haptic feedback is far more advanced, and much more immersive. Bristol-based Ultrahaptics, for instance, uses ultrasound to project sensations onto your hand allowing you to feel things that are not there.

Using ultrahaptics, art-lovers could reach out and touch the subtle brushstrokes of famous masterpieces, or experience an impending stampede of a cavalry. And haptics may be only the beginning of a complete sensory experience: what if we could smell the burning embers of the Great Fire of London, or taste the rich flavours of a Tudor banquet?

This kind of 360° experience could – using the five senses – immerse visitors completely in the realities of lives lived long ago, completely transforming how we view history.

AI and Machine Learning

AI – incorporating ‘machine learning’ and ‘deep learning’ – is the technology that everybody is talking about.

While we’re quite some way from Westworld (an American science fiction television series), basic AI is already more commonplace than we realise. Companies such as Google, YouTube and Pinterest have been using machine learning algorithms for years to understand user behaviour and anticipate needs; even Tesco trialled a facial scanning app targeting customer ads based on age and gender.

It won’t be long before heritage sites start using AI technology to learn patterns of guest behaviour – such as footfall throughout a site – to better inform the placemaking experience.

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, arbitrary demographics will give rise to intelligent data. Mood or behavioural tracking – through biometrics or physiological data – could be used to deliver a totally personalised visitor experience for the whole family, on an existing physical site.

Imagine visiting a historical house known for sightings of ghosts. An app could monitor your tolerance to fear during a visit, and make your experience more or less frightening.

Alternatively, just like the story makers behind Westworld, different narratives, soundtracks or characters could be used to engage diverse user groups within a single place.

Virtual Reality

2016 was the year VR hit the mainstream; certainly in terms of awareness, if not adoption. For heritage organisations, that could potentially mean a complete redefinition of the visitor experience.

The implications of virtual reality means you won’t need to be physically in a particular place to experience its delights. In the future, educational trips will be chosen based on learning objectives, not accessibility criteria; if we can already take a field trip to Mars or fly along the Grand Canyon, there are certainly no barriers to Cornwall schoolchildren visiting Hadrian’s Wall in the space of a double history lesson.

In accessibility terms, VR offers a way for heritage organisations to open up sites that are either difficult or dangerous to access. Furthermore, no one will be left behind – visitors with limited mobility will still be able to take in the panoramic view from the top of the tallest towers, having virtually climbed every one of the ancient steps to get there. And the future of VR is certainly not a solo venture, Oculus (owned by Facebook) are already exploring ‘social VR’, a push to bring people together in one place.

It’s hard to say for sure whether the more ambitious of our imaginings are three, five, or 10 years from becoming reality; but for heritage, the future is close. The seeds have already been sown, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of experiential digital placemaking.

Emerging technologies will hand control of the visitor experience to the visitor, giving individuals the ability to explore history in their own way.