Time travel with an app

The iPhone app Dublin City Walls is a virtual tour guide of a kind that could transform our experience of historical sites

The iPhone app Dublin City Walls is a virtual tour guide of a kind that could transform our experience of historical sites

YOU KNOW the way you sometimes go to visit a historical site and when you find it there’s just a bump in the ground or a pile of stones – and that, pretty much, is that? Those who are trained in matters historical can get their imagination into gear and fill in some of the gaps. But for the rest of us it can be a somewhat underwhelming experience.

A new iPhone app promises to revolutionise the way we interact with our heritage sites. Dublin City Walls uses high-resolution graphics, 3D imaging, video and GPS technology to bring the marvels of medieval Dublin right into the palm of your hand.

“We’re a bunch of animators, graphic designers and video people,” says Niall Ó hOisín of Nóho. His animation company has been working with Dublin City Council (DCC) for some time on a project called Medieval Dublin, which has brought DVDs and interactive materials to primary schools. As part of that project short videos were shot on the main sites of historical Dublin and a 3D virtual model of the medieval city was created.


The iPhone, according to Ó hOisín, was an obvious way to bring this material to a wider public. “It was an experiment for DCC, and for us too,” he says. “We wanted to see how our content could translate into that new territory.”

The app, in fact, goes where few heritage organisations have gone before. “Because of Medieval Dublin we’re involved in a big Network of Excellence around Europe,” says Ó hOisín. “There are some big research institutes in Germany studying pure virtual reality, and then you might have a museum in Rome that’s looking at digitising certain content. We were over in Italy recently, and I was showing the app running on an iPad. And they were all amazed, because they don’t have stuff like that around Europe, even though the whole tourist industry revolves around heritage and it’s a great way to do it.”

So what do you get if you spend €2.99 on Dublin City Walls? “When you open it up you have a clickable map of Dublin with hot spots,” says Ó hOisín. “When you click into a hot spot you have a choice: you can get some text on the feature you’ve just clicked into; sometimes there’s a video to go with it; and there are a series of photographs. From the main menu we’ve done a very high-resolution image of Dublin in 1500. You can zip around that, and it gives you little guides to where you are.”

There’s also a GPS map so you can orientate yourself in the 21st-century city. By far the coolest features, however, are the before-and-after images. Stand on Wood Quay, point your phone at the Civic Offices, touch the screen and hey presto: the bunkers melt away, to be replaced by a view of Viking ships, bobbing gently on the waters of Dubh Linn as the citizens go about their daily business. Or watch Isolde’s Tower, currently just a decidedly unromantic stump, rise before your eyes in all its pristine glory.

It may look like magic, but Ó hOisín says that accurate historical information is the foundation stone of the exercise. “Medieval Dublin has a steering committee made up of people from Dublin City Council, Dublinia and the Office of Public Works, plus Prof Howard Clarke, who’s the expert on all things medieval. The relevant person will always sit in on what we’re doing, to make sure we’re not just going off and having fun with the model,” he says.

The archaeologist Linzi Simpson is also on board. “She understands where we’re coming from,” says Ó hOisín. “We want to tell a story and tell it the best way we can, but also to respect the archaeology and history behind it.”

Having re-created Dublin’s city walls, the people at Nóho are now working on a virtual-realisation application for a heritage site in the midlands. “The Government doesn’t have a lot of money to put into signage, but these apps mean you can go in and interpret the whole site just using your phone,” says Ó hOisín. “It doesn’t impinge on the site itself, so it’s a nice green solution, provided it uses good content from a good source.”

Creating an iPhone app and putting it out into the big digital world is not the end of the story. With more than 300,000 apps floating around the iTunes store, the next step is to get an app noticed.

“It seems to be a bit of a dark art with apps, in terms of how they’re publicised,” Ó hOisín says. But only time will tell whether tourists, residents and avid medievalists find it to be an app to treasure. Which, with a historical app, is strangely app-ropriate.

The Dublin City Walls app costs €2.99 from the Apple App Store