The Lost Palace is a new immersive heritage experience from Historic Royal Palaces. MuseumNext Founder Jim Richardson took the tour.
It’s dusk in central London, and I find myself on Whitehall, the street that connects Trafalgar Square with Parliament. Even at 8pm, it’s still busy with tourists, mixing with office workers on their way home from work.
I am in a group of thirteen people, all grasping wedges of wood with headphones plugged into them. Over the next 80 minutes, these will become oars, swords, cockerels and a beating heart (much to the amusement of passers-by) as we travel into the past with an interactive storytelling experience from Historic Royal Palaces.
Today Whitehall is the home of the British Government, but nested amongst these 21st-century corridors of power is Banqueting House, the only remaining part of the Palace of Whitehall.
Until it was destroyed by fire in 1698, the Palace of Whitehall was the largest royal residence in Europe. Some of the most significant, defining moments in British history took place here.
To bring this rich history to life Historic Royal Palaces launched a competition in 2015 for artists, creatives and technologists to create an immersive storytelling experience.
The brief for this was viewed over 3000 times online, over 100 creatives took part in site visits, and this resulted in 90 proposals.
Five of these applicants received £10,000 each to prototype ideas, and two of these came together to form The Lost Palace, which Historic Royal Palaces launched this month at Banqueting House.
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.
Back on Whitehall, I am following the group grasping my wooden wedge (handheld device). The block has no screen to distract me, just headphones through which I am given instruction on interacting with the world around me.
I am guided to a large charred doorway, one of many items that Historic Royal Palaces have had added to the streets to help illustrate the story.
Someone not on the tour might imagine that these items have been here for hundreds of years, but they hide technology which allows me to access different stories by pressing the block against them.
The block works in other ways, I am instructed to point it towards a building and I can hear voices from the past by tuning into different windows, the experience feels truly immersive.
‘This is a great time to be doing this because the digital is now physical and it allows people to interact with spaces and each other in ways that we’ve never been able to do before’ Tim Powell from Historic Royal Palaces told me. (Watch Tim talk more about establishing an R&D programme in a museum here).
This experience is different for every visitor, I will access different stories to those around me, and when I fall behind the group, the audio subtly shortens to allow me to catch up with those who have walked ahead.
The sound quality is superb, with binaural 3D sound giving the impression that someone is whispering in your ear or those footsteps are going past you. This is partnered with haptic technology that brings the wooden wedge to life, beating in my hand for example as the heart of a king preparing to be executed.
Visiting The Lost Palace in a group really added to my experience too, seeing the expressions on the face of others as they were, for example, told to ‘shake their cockerel’ was very entertaining.
The technology behind The Lost Palace was impressive. The bespoke handheld devices hide within their wooden exterior a hacked Android phone, haptic technology and an RFID reader allowing them to do so much with digital without feeling like a digital experience.
But what impressed me the most was how well all the different elements worked together to create an enjoyable, entertaining and immersive experience.
Tim Powell and his team at Historic Royal Palaces should be congratulated and I look forward to seeing what they do next with their innovative approach to R&D and collaboration with the creative industries.
The Lost Palace is developed in collaboration with award-winning designers Chomko & Rosier, international theater company Uninvited Guests (with Lewis Gibson) and software developers Calvium Ltd.
The Lost Palace runs until 4th September.