The University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies Team will be bringing the latest in Virtual Reality and Gaming technologies to the shores of Burrator Reservoir this weekend, as they take part in the official opening of South West Lakes’ new Discovery Centre. Having already “hit the news” in the south west with their recent achievements using VR techniques to recreate the A7 submarine, a vessel that tragically sank with all hands 100 years ago in Whitsand Bay, the HIT Team will be demonstrating how Virtual Reality can be used to “turn the clock back”, allowing members of the public to explore historical sites that have not existed for many decades.

The Team’s Virtual Burrator is one of two computer recreations of areas in South Devon that have been developed primarily for research addressing new simulation-based approaches to healthcare. A related VR system, Virtual Wembury, is already being used within the Intensive Care Unit of Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital as part of an experimental investigation into how “windows” onto a virtual world may help patients recover from traumatic operations by improving sleep quality, reducing instances of delirium and helping to wean patients off mechanical ventilators. The Team is also investigating how similar systems might be used to support the care of the elderly, particularly those with early stage dementia. Virtual Wembury has also been used by University of Plymouth researchers investigating dental treatment anxieties. The software was demonstrated to Wembury villagers in December 2012 and included a recreation of what the Bay would have looked like, had a proposal to the House of Lords for a new commercial dock been accepted in 1909.

Virtual Burrator is an ongoing project at the University of Birmingham and brings together students and academic researchers who, as well as their interests in healthcare technologies, are also keen to show how VR technologies can, when exploited in heritage projects, be used to engage with the general public, encouraging them to look for historical materials that may be stored in suitcases and old shoeboxes under the beds of their family members. Led by Professor Bob Stone, himself a Plymothian, the Team makes regular visits to the region and are often seen clambering around the hills and through dense vegetation in the area, or flying quadcopters to survey sites that are difficult to access. Virtual Burrator includes 3D reconstructions of the dam and lake, Burrator Lodge, the Yelverton-to-Princetown railway line at Burrator & Sheepstor Halt, the old Yelverton Reservoir and the temporary suspension bridge (constructed during the 1920s whilst the dam was being raised to increase the Reservoir’s water capacity). Visitors to the event will be able to explore these simulated environments using Xbox hand controllers, large-screen displays, even a virtual reality head- mounted display.

Working with Truro-based Swathe Services and their American partner Oceanscience, the Team plans to return to Burrator in September and, using a sophisticated remotely-controlled boat equipped with GPS and a high-definition echo sounder, they will map out parts of the Reservoir lake bed in order to discover what structures and features remain that can be used to recreate the natural and man-made geography of the natural basin prior to its flooding in the late 1800s. Of particular interest will be the original site and outbuildings of the Longstone Manor Estate, Essworthy Farm, Sheepstor Bridge and any other structures in the vicinity of the old moorland road to Sheepstor village.