VR experts create virtual boarding for Mayflower 400th anniversary

Mayflower 720
The Mayflower prepares to leave Plymouth with Pilgrims aboard

Experts have developed a Virtual Reality (VR) reconstruction of the Mayflower that will mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers setting sail for America.

The Virtual Mayflower project recreates the Barbican Harbour area in Plymouth in the 1620s - allowing the VR user to board a small boat at the original site of the Mayflower Steps before taking a short journey out to the ship and experience passengers and crew preparing to set sail.

Led by VR experts at the University of Birmingham, the project was six years in the making and uses computer-based interactive technologies, such as Virtual and Augmented Reality (AR) to recreate history.

The project will be live online at www.1620mayflower.co.uk to coincide with the anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure from Plymouth on 16 September 1620.

The Project has been led by Professor Bob Stone, Director of the Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team at the University of Birmingham, himself born and bred in Plymouth but now living in Droitwich Spa, the birthplace of senior Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who was instrumental in the establishment of Plimoth Plantation and cementing a strong, early relationship with the Native Americans.

Professor Stone commented: “Virtual Mayflower is a magnificent way to commemorate a key point in history that shaped the development of the United States - an immersive experience that transports the viewer back to Plymouth in 1620.

“As well as being a great demonstration of the power of VR and AR technology, this has been a collaborative and educational exercise involving members of the public, local historians, schoolchildren, artists and actors - all contributing to the development of highly detailed and authentic virtual models and scenes.”

Professor Stone and the HIT worked with a range of partner organisations on the project, including Royal Leamington Spa College, responsible for developing the virtual Pilgrims – Barbican inhabitants, plus the passengers and crew (including an avatar of Edward Winslow), and Plymouth-based Bluestone 360, who will be hosting the simulation online. Specialist digital artists and VR specialists Robert Guest and Chris Harvey coordinated the development of the 3D assets.

The project builds on the HIT team’s extensive maritime heritage work since the early 2000s, including the creation of a VR/AR visualisation of the Anne - a 70-gun ship of the line, launched in 1678 and beached at Pett Level, east of Hastings during the Battle of Beachy Head in 1680. The Anne’s remains lay buried under the sands at Pett Level Beach, until the storms of 2013 exposed the ship.

“Virtual Mayflower presented more of a challenge than the Anne, as we wanted the project to both collaborative and educational,” Professor Stone commented. “We also developed an international partnership, involving groups and talents in the USA such as Plimoth Plantation and schools in Plymouth Massachusetts to deliver a truly ‘hands across the Atlantic’ cultural legacy.”

The team has also been developing VR and complex navigational animation sequences for the Plymouth-based company MSUBS, as part of their Mayflower Autonomous Ship project, a vessel that has been designed to reproduce the transatlantic crossing of the Pilgrims using state-of-the-art maritime sensing and AI technologies.

The Pilgrim Fathers founded the settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts - the first permanent colony in New England. Of the 102 colonists, 35 were members of the English Separatist Church who had earlier fled to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to escape persecution at home. 

Notes to editors:

  • For more information, interview opportunities and to request VR imagery and video please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham, on +44 7827 832312
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Established in 2003, the University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies Team is a world-leading and award-winning group of multidisciplinary researchers, involved in the research and development of real-world-applications of Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality for defence, healthcare, heritage and education, and evaluating novel interactive technologies using mature human-centred design principles and practices. 
  • The Royal Leamington Spa College is the main campus of the Warwickshire College Group. Having recently undergone a transformation, the College provides an impressive range of creative facilities for students and the wider community. The College offers qualifications in games art and design, aimed at those with an interest in art and computing, with topics covering theory and software skills relating to 3D modelling, animation, level and game design, concept art and visual effects. 
  • Bluestone360 is a creative brand strategy agency based in Plymouth, Devon home to a team of creative media professionals who are passionate about creating authentic experiences for brands, businesses and individuals.