Immediately after visiting Herringfleet Marshes and Geldeston Lock on March 1st, we visited the lost Roman settlement of Venta Icenorum, just south of Norwich by a village that’s known today as Caistor St. Edmund. There is nothing much at the site other than a free car park and an interpretation board explaining how the site would have looked – but what’s also on the interpretation board is a link to download an Android and iOS app which allows you to see how the site would have looked in the Roman periods.

Brief history of Venta Icenorum

A map of Venta Incenorum as it would have been in around AD 450 – image courtesy Norfolk Archaeological Trust.

Venta was the predecessor of Norwich, which today is the county town of Norfolk. Venta was founded in circa AD 60 in the River Tas valley, right by the confluence of the River Yare and Wensum (which is just by Whitlingham Great Broad – arguably the most westerly point of the Broads network). Today, the village of Caistor St. Edmund sits very close to where the city of Venta once was. Venta was the largest and most important settlement in Roman East Anglia. ‘Icenorum’ means ‘marketplace of the Eceni’ and ‘Venta’ is the name that the Romans gave to what today forms all of Norfolk, the northern bits of Suffolk and the eastern bits of Cambridgeshire.

It is believed that Venta remained a settlement until Roman power in England broke down in approximately AD 410 and that the settlement was possibly abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire as there is very little evidence of Anglo Saxon intervention in the area. Nobody really knows what happened to the city, however.

Venta Icenorum is one of three major Roman towns that was not destroyed by the Medieval rebuilding of England and the area has been protected since 1984 and since 2009 there has been excavations carried out by the University of Nottingham, South Norfolk Council and The Norfolk Archaeological Trust (who own the land) to learn more about the defunct settlement.

The Venta Incenorum site as it appears today, viewed from the south. Image courtesy Norfolk Archaeological Trust.

Why is this app interesting?

Asides from attempting to allow the public to see how this town would have looked and help educate people of local history (and unfortunately, not very well-known local history), this app is interesting to me because it is an attempt to do something that I’d quite like to try and replicate at Burgh Castle and potentially other sites that I have visited as part of this project over the past few months. I think it’s specifically interesting at sites where I’d like to explore ways in which to take the user ‘back in time’ through their phone using something like this form of ‘AR’, which isn’t really AR, rather just ‘augments’ models over a live view of the device camera to show you how objects would have looked in the environment that you are standing in. This is a little different from my app idea for Burgh Castle which instead would be a 360 degree image that the user could pan around by moving their phone, rather than utilising the device camera, but this is one of the closest things that I have found to that.

Downloading and installing

Unfortunately it doesn’t get off to a great start. There is an interpretation board in the car park which has instructions on how to download the app onto your phone, but there is no QR code or direct link to the app store to get the app, instead you need to manually search for the app title in the app store. Unfortunately, the name of the app they give is outdated and this app has either since been renamed or removed from the store altogether, so you can’t find it. There is a website you can go onto which is mentioned on the interpretation board – the site is still active (and is in fact cited as a reference on this post!) but the links to both the Android and iOS versions of the app are dead and do not work. My course tutor had done some prior research and had found that the app was called ‘Virtual Venta’ and it is in the app store so I was able to download it, but I don’t know where he found this information from. The public wouldn’t know this because it is not written on the website or the interpretation board – a shame! The Norfolk Archaeological Trust need to update their information.

The interpretation board instructs the visitor to download an app called ‘Caistor Roman Town’, but upon searching for it…

 

…it does not appear in the Google Play store at all!

 

Using the direct link from their website, the Play store informs us that the app cannot be found.

Providing that the public haven’t given up at this point and manage to find the app, it’s a 62MB download on Android because it also requires a library called ‘Google AR’ which is about 32MB. On the 4G speeds at the site it was downloaded and installed in about a minute and upon opening the app there was no need for any additional content to be downloaded, unlike the WymTrials app for Wymondham which proceeds to download several hundred megabytes of additional content after it is opened for the first time!

Using the app

The app begins by opening some instructions and then navigating you from wherever you are to an area known as the ‘forum’ (it’s possible that the modern day Forum in Norwich was named after the forum at the Roman city of Venta). The navigation is fairly basic but a hashed line from your current location to the forum is shown, so you can follow it roughly. A little circle moves as you move and an arrow shows your compass heading which helps to aid the navigation, but some signage en-route and maybe a more detailed map would have been nice. It does tell you when you have arrived at certain points, for example below it is showing me that I’ve arrived at what was known as the South Gate and tapping that little ‘script’ button on the left side would tell me some more information about it – almost like the app that our walkers suggested me make when we met them at Ashby, St. Mary’s.

The app notifying me that I have arrived at the South Gate.

At this point a more detailed map of what was the Roman settlement of Venta Icenorum does appear and I do like the choice of colours used as well as how minimalist and modern the app looks, but that bend in the path that you can see is not very obvious when you are walking it as there’s no signage or real footpath to follow, so either the map on the app needs to be more detailed or there needs to be better visual cues at the site.

Once you arrive at what was the forum (again, not that easy to find and had to walk around a bit!) there are items to collect which are hidden on the floor. This reminds me a lot of the ‘Henry The Hare’ Wymondham trail where you have to walk around the town to find some items for Henry to help him make his way home. These items that you find at Venta are required to let you into the city! To find them you need to just walk around with your device camera facing downwards and there are certain points where certain items are hidden. When they are found, they are added to your inventory – they’re things like keys, buckets and other small items. I didn’t think this at the time, but remembering how the WymTrails app worked, it required you to hold your phone downwards for a few seconds for the AR scenes to calibrate before the AR worked correctly – I wonder if this exercise is also doing that?

Searching for the virtual items with my phone – it reminded me of the Henry The Hare trail, aimed at children.

Once all of the virtual items are found, you are able to use your device camera to look around Venta as it would have been as a Roman settlement! It works with varying levels of success, however.

The idea is that you follow a story, first asking an inhabitant for help finding beer or a blessing who then points you in the direction of somebody else and so on. The app has sound and the characters speak first in Latin and then in English (there are also subtitles for those who don’t want to use the speakers or are hard-of-hearing) and interaction with the characters is done through tapping buttons with pre-written answers and questions.

I think that if you are able to complete the story you get to learn about the settlement and ‘meet’ these different characters who have different roles and jobs in the town. It’s a good idea and an interesting way to teach history that’s a lot more interactive than an interpretation board or a guide that you have to buy from a gift shop.

Unfortunately, three of us had Samsung Galaxy S8s and all three of us experienced the same problems:

  • The app would frequently crash and the only way to resume stability was to exit the app and begin again – but this deletes all of your progress and it means that you need to find those items again!
  • The app would complain that the ‘camera view has been obstructed’ and that you needed to restart the app – this also meant that the augmented reality didn’t work as well as it should do.
  • It absolutely ate our batteries. On my phone I went from 30% to 0% in just 10 minutes – my phone would no longer boot. The others experienced the same.

Those among us with iPhones had a more positive experience and were able to complete some of the story and the AR worked much better. The augmentation was quite effective!

On an iPhone the experience was better with the AR working correctly. You can see the phone is showing a bird in the palm of the hand in front of the device camera.

 

Meanwhile on my Samsung S8, Corrina, my course tutor and Amy are ‘kind of in a wall’! The AR didn’t work amazingly on Android handsets.

My course tutor had a Samsung Galaxy S7 and didn’t have the problems with the battery life and the ‘camera obstructed’ message that we had – and he had a case similar to the one on my S8 on his phone too, so it likely wasn’t caused by my case.

Thoughts about this app

In my experience, it wasn’t massively successful or user-friendly, but it was a good idea! I like the idea of completing a small story to see all areas of the Roman town and learning about the history by ‘talking’ to the characters in the app – it’s a good idea and if it worked it would be quite good fun and can really bring what is otherwise essentially a field with some stone remains in it alive! I do think that there should be the option of completing the story or just ‘having a look’ and finding out information by tapping on items and then reading or hearing about them. I can imagine children enjoying finding the objects and completing the storyline, but adults not being so interested in this.

I’m also a little confused about who the app is really aimed at. It’s likely the adults who’d want to find out the information about this place, but the storyline and activities are clearly aimed at children – however the interface looks fairly sleek and polished with a limited colour palette used, not like a child’s app at all. Not like the Henry The Hare WymTrails app, see screenshots below.

The interface of the WymTrails app features brighter colours, gradients, shadows, curved and bold fonts and little graphics such as the rolled-up map, which makes it look more childish.

The WymTrails app also features little ‘paw prints’ stuck to the pavements of the town centre so that people can follow these when walking – perhaps a similar idea could be utilised for this app? It would help the navigation side of things. I understand that people start using this app at the car park and the forum is actually a 5-10 minute walk away from this – and the walk is not a straight line, but perhaps the navigation could be made easier by visual cues or the interpretation board at the car park could instruct you to download the app (via QR code) and then another interpretation board or item nearer the forum could activate the app and begin the experience.

One of the paw prints that directs users of the WymTrails app. Visual navigational cues could be used to help users to find the locations.

It’s disappointing that I couldn’t use the app for too long – because of the bugs and the fact that my battery died very quickly, but I think compared to the WymTrails app this would have been more fun had it actually worked. I was able to complete the WymTrails app, despite there being some bugs with it. For my full experience with that app, please read this case study about it on my personal portfolio website.

Augmentation was more successful in the WymTrails app, but it did require you to point your phone at the ground to calibrate the scenes.

However, re-reading what I wrote about the WymTrails app when I wrote that case study in June 2018, it seems that it shares a lot of the same problems as this Virtual Venta does: the app crashes, it drains battery, some assets don’t load correctly and some points aren’t registered at all.

Which brings me onto my next point.

Web app vs app and ‘360 experience’ vs ‘AR experience’ for my experience?

I touched on this subject back in January when writing about my visit to Breydon Water and Burgh Castle, but these apps just confirm some very serious pitfalls with writing an app compared to making a web app and using a ‘360 experience’ compared to an ‘AR experience’.

Let’s first consider app vs web app in the context of these kind of apps. An app needs to work on the two major smartphone platforms (iOS and Android) and it needs to be small enough for the user to quickly download and install whilst they are at the location. Unfortunately the Virtual Venta app failed on both of these. The dead links and manually searching for the app in the app store could be a pain for the user and also time consuming, so it was not quick to find at all. Installation was quick enough, however. When it came to platform compatibility, it appeared that the iOS version worked far better than the Android version. It is likely that to save time, the app was originally developed for iOS and then ported over to Android.

A web app on the other hand can be easily accessible from a URL or QR code, should run in most browsers irrespective of platform and if the link is changed then redirects and HTACCESS files can be used to redirect old links to new ones without the need to reproduce documentation and interpretation boards, or even update information on websites. However, the scope of what is possible is reduced, even if there is less content to download and the web app only downloads the content that it needs to run ‘as and when’ the user requests the information – this is how websites work. An app on the other hand usually must be downloaded in its entirety before it can even be opened.

The app kept saying that the camera had become obstructed and that the scene needed re-calibrating, when the camera was clearly unobstructed.

As for the ‘360 experience’ vs ‘AR experience’ debate, there are some clear benefits of using a simple 360 degree image that can be panned using the device gyroscope:

  • Offers a similar experience to AR.
  • Can run in a web app as well as an installed app.
  • Does not use the device camera at all, so negates any problems using that may cause.
  • Far lighter on system resources as models do not need to be loaded and rendered over the top of the device camera running.
  • This will mean that a 360 experience is lighter on battery life.
  • This also means that a 360 experience is potentially smaller and quicker to load as multiple models do not need to be stored locally and loaded – just one image.

The downside is that for users it may not be as impressive, but for the Burgh Castle experience that I have in mind it is probably easier, cheaper and more ideal to produce.

Battery drain was a real issue with this app. In 10 minutes I had lost 30% of my battery to this app, eventually running it down to 0%.

What’s next?

On Tuesday March 5th we are back at university and it is just the three BSc students – we will likely be finding out what BSc2b/Broads Phase 2 has in store for us specifically from a research, interaction design and eventually production perspective.

On Thursday March 7th we will be meeting the graphic communication students again and working with them, possibly hearing how they’ve responded to the three concepts we gave them to look at on February 28th and considering how a visual identity can be put into this app.

Bibliography

Norfarchtrust.org.uk. (n.d.). Caistor Roman Town | Norfolk Archaeological Trust. [online] Available at: https://www.norfarchtrust.org.uk/caistor [Accessed 3 Mar. 2019].