To understand the potential for the much-hyped virtual reality (VR) and 5G, it is interesting to see where these technologies are now coming together. In Italy, they underpin a project that is providing digital access to the spectacular but remote ancient cave churches around Matera.

The 5G technology stems from a trial roll-out in Bari and Matera in the south of Italy, awarded to a consortium in late 2017 by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development. This has facilitated a VR project to create a digital visitor experience to the churches, which in 1993 were accredited as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It has been a huge project with multiple partners, says Francesca Sogliani,  director specialising in archeological assets at the University of the Basilicata Region. The partners include two Italian companies, VR specialist, Digital Lighthouse, and engineering outfit, Geocart.

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The project has seen the creation of a detailed GIS database and digital map of the archeological sites, plus the bringing together of all previous related data and documentation, and then the creation of three-dimensional reconstructions.

There are more than 160 of the Rupestrian churches in the area, spanning nearly 1000 years. They were mainly for worship by farmworkers in the countryside. While small, the rock-hewn creations are often decorated with colourful frescoes.

The solution allows users to move around the sites, getting close to the walls and objects via VR headsets, as well as listening and following the directions of a tour guide. The headsets are available in the cities of Matera and Bari.

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Professor Francesca Sogliani, University of the Basilicata Region

The initial churches in the project are the Church of S. Nicola dei Greci, the site Cripta del Peccato Originale, the Church of S. Maria degli Angeli and the Church of Madonna delle Virtù.

“A lot of the churches are very hard to reach because they are far from urban centres,” says Professor Sogliani. VR combined with the local guides allows many more people to interact with the sites than can physically access them.

Professor Sogliani warns of the need avoid gimmicky – “the research and context has to be built in the very best way” otherwise the application of this technology will not work. However, if done well, she sees lots of potential for VR in this context: “Digital tourism and VR in the 5G era will not only revitalise UNESCO sites but also enhance connections between people and place.”

Main image © UNESCO Crypt of the Original Sin, Matera