The Lost City of Clonmacnoise Now Found on an App

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias – Percy Byshe Shelley

While the Lost City of Clonmacnoise has not been altogether lost to the sands of time, a new app by RealSIM, the makers of Virtual 3D Galway, has, through a combination of modern technologies, recreated a virtual version of the city to be interacted with on mobile devices. The app gives a visually enhanced, spatially accurate rendering of what it would have looked like at some point in its heyday in the early 12th Century. The Clonmacnoise app can be used either as an on-site guide should you pay a visit or you can take a remote tour regardless of your location.

First, a little history: Clonmacnoise was founded about 1500 years ago on the banks of the River Shannon on the main east-west road that ran through the low-lying bogs of the Irish midlands. By the 9th century it was a thriving city but its ascendancy was only to last another couple of hundred years before the world moved on leaving behind what has come to be the ruins that inhabit present site and an incomplete set of annals that serve to remind us of what once was.

Clonmacnoise is now a major tourist destination and there are a considerable number of things to see in a relatively small area. There are churches, temples, towers, important Celtic crosses and a even a cathedral.

All these structures stand testament to the craftsmanship of old and the good use of the rough, rugged, long-lasting stone. But as redoubtable as these materials are they can only ever tell a partial story of what life was like in Clonmacnoise. We know where people worshipped but where did they live? What did they do? How did they get by? What sort of people were they?

Our available knowledge of societies in the so-called Dark Ages combined with the archaeological record and the events described in the annals does provide us with enough information enough to deduce and infer what life may have been like then with what we believe to be some degree of accuracy.

However, it still remains hard to visualise how life was lived in the mundane, quotidian sense. Away from the monks, priests and High Kings, the minutiae of every day living still had to be handled. How do we begin to compare our daily lives with the daily lives of those who lived back then? Even more interestingly wouldn’t it be fascinating to see the city of Clonmacnoise on something like the scale that it originally had – in three dimensions?

With the Clonmacnoise app Gavin Duffy has just done that. He and his team have combined 3D content with GPS and mobile technology to provide an interactive guide whether the user is on the site or not.

According to Gavin, “Most of the geo-located apps are 2D augmented reality — images super-imposed on the camera view. This is the first app that I am aware of that you can navigate an app which is a full 3D environment just like a game but using your own movement through the real-world scene.”

As the user walks around the iPad (soon to be other devices) uses GPS to locate their position. Because it is connected to the compass as well as the user turns the 12th century version of the scene shown on the device turns with them. The net effect is of the user moving through the 3D environment while simultaneously moving through the location. The image they see on the screen is what they would have seen if they had been standing in the exact same spot more than a thousand years ago.

“The big advantage over traditional 2D augmented reality.” According to Gavin, “Is that you don’t have to be here on site to appreciate it. You can be in Dublin or San Francisco. You can use simple touch-screen movements to look around the environment just as you would in a regular game.”

While Gavin’s background as a geo-physicist went a long way to help him in developing the app there were still a number of major challenges to overcome. “It’s relatively easy to map what exists, photographing and modeling in 3D. It is more challenging to map what does not exist. There are no maps from a thousand years ago so we had to create those maps ourselves with reference to literary information from various annals that survive and archaeological evidence from other sites of the same period.

“From that we were able to establish that there was a blacksmithing industry and a thriving market place, people came from all around. This was a university town — Ireland was one of the bastions of learning. Students came from all over Europe. At the time Europe was in the dark ages and this is a prime example of why Ireland became known as the Land of Saints and Scholars.”

While we can never know what life was really like, especially for the ‘ordinary’ people that have inhabited our history the more we endeavour to seek an understanding of their lives, the more we can, perhaps, gain vital insights into our own.

As Gavin says, “We are all very interested in where we come from. There is a natural, innate, curiosity as to what has made us what we are. What is the fabric of our history makes us who we are today.”

Also, by taking advantage of the technology available to us to render a better of understanding of our own very temporary place in the scheme of things.

“Clonmacnoise is a classic example of things that are great today do and will fall, change and evolve. It’s good to keep in mind that humanity and our values are continually changing. It is an important lesson to communicate that great empires and great cities fall.”

What has gone has gone and there is no likelihood of any app bringing the past to life again. But with carefully applied use of the mobile, mapping and rendering technologies we have at present we can make a decent attempt of envisioning the past.

The Clonmacnoise app is now available for iPhone and iPad. Do have a look at the following video to see how the Clonmacnoise app works in greater detail.

Virtual 3D Galway


Click on any of the images to view amazing flyby of Galway City, Ireland.

Three years, two thousand person hours and fifteen thousand high resolution photographs later, Galway City has been rendered into a photo-realistic, wholly-accurate, three-dimensional model. Virtual 3D Galway is an immersive model in which you fly through the City, approach it from any angle and examine it from any perspective.

Gavin Duffy, Technical Director of Realsim, a Galway-based realtime 3D simulation company, began this epic project as a proof of concept. He says, “It is as far as I am aware the most detailed model of any city in Ireland. Because we have spent a lot of time and effort photographing from the ground with high resolution photography, very few of our buildings have people or lamp posts in them. So, we don’t suffer that Google Street View clutter. It’s clean, it’s high resolution, it’s geo-spatially accurate, we think it is as good as anything you’ll find anywhere in the world in terms of a 3D model.”

Realsim’s primary focus is in planning and development. Gavin explains, “Our bread and butter business has been supplying large organisations with realtime 3D models of their own property. Our first major customer was here in NUI Galway. The Buildings Office have a 3D model of the entire campus. They fly around themselves when they are talking to engineers or architectural consultants.

“When they are discussing the ever-changing parking plans, they can fly down to an area and say this is what we need to do here. The feedback has been that it is much more effective than looking at one of those white CAD plans. People know immediately what they are talking about.”

Stepping away from using traditional 3D architectural modelers who don’t normally take into account polygon and data volume, Gavin hired in as Chief 3D Graphic Designer, Eoghan Quigley, an experienced gaming programmer. The volume of vector information and the resolution of imagery that are in a given scene is very important. Even as powerful as modern laptop computers are, it is important to optimise data volumes, and there is a skill in getting the right balance between detail and data volume.

As Gavin points out, this has led to other interesting possible uses for the technology behind Virtual 3D Galway, “An interesting potential avenue [for us] is that because the model is game ready, it can then be applied to real-world games. If someone wanted to develop a game for Galway, it could be very beneficial as a promotional tool for Galway itself. We’re not a gaming company, but we can supply a gaming company with a ready-to-go real city environment on which they can develop a game.”

At the beginning of the project, Galway was mapped by a series of aerial photographs – the raw material of the 3D environment. They provide the base map and it’s also the most efficient way to extract three dimensional shapes for the actual buildings.

But what makes Virtual 3D Galway so special is the time and effort spent walking down every street and alley over an area of three square kilometres containing over six thousand buildings, and even doing that was not as straightforward as it may seem.

Gavin explains, “It’s not just a matter of going out and photographing willy-nilly. The factors you’ve got to take into consideration are [things like] sunlight. Sometimes when sunlight is illuminating a building it can add a nice 3D effect, but if it’s completely in the shadow it is better to come back again on a cloudy day. You’re not going to get good photography in Shop Street (Galway’s main pedestrian thoroughfare) on a Friday evening. Nor are you going to get good photography first thing in the morning when all the delivery trucks are there. Particularly for city centre areas you have got to time exactly when you photograph. There were a lot of Sunday mornings [spent taking pictures] but at the same time you don’t want to photograph shops with the shutters down.

“The very process of acquiring the photographs and getting the optimal times in terms of lighting, lack of people, cars, vehicles, was a challenge in itself, but we were willing to put the the time and effort in to get the very best photography for the model.”

Data currency (the recency and relevancy of data) was, is and will always be a major challenge. Urban environments are in a constant state of flux. Old shops close, new shops open. Warehouses are torn down and cinemas built and so on. Sometimes an old map can be worse than no map.

“Building facades change quite regularly in Galway and we’ve ended up photographing the same facade several times just to keep the model up to date… That will be an ongoing challenge: one of the reasons why I think in the long term other cities in the world will probably have to localise the development and maintenance of their [own virtual] cities. [In order] to maintain an up-to-date city model, a local company will need to manage it.

“For example, Google have covered the UK and Ireland but when are they going to come back? The aerial photography for Galway is well out of date. You don’t see Webworks, and you don’t see the TK Maxx building because they were all construction sites then.”

So as environments and technologies change, the need for new skill-sets and outlooks emerge. New opportunities emerge. But Virtual 3D Galway is more than a backdrop to a game or a functional engineering tool. It is a view of ourselves and where we live reflected back at us in an unerringly accurate manner that we have never witnessed before. The true value of Virtual 3D Galway is in what it can tell us about how we live now and perhaps inform us in some way of how we can live better in the future.

Gavin says, “In the absence of knowledge and proper information, fear and distrust build. [Virtual 3D Galway] allows people to see objectively the true shape of things to come.

“Part of the problem that society has had in terms of imagining a way forward is that people have not been able to communicate their vision. If you can create that vision in a virtual environment, it then becomes a very, very powerful means to promote it and even let people in a virtual way to experience it. I think virtual worlds will have a powerful way in helping people to create a really good and powerful vision for the way we should go forward using virtual world technology.”