The Virtual Reality Oracle Project investigates ancient divination and modern technology

The University of Bristol, King’s College London, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, and University of Bath are excited to have been awarded an AHRC project grant to develop the Virtual Reality Oracle.

The Virtual Reality Oracle project brings together ancient history, human-computer interaction, neuroscience and psychology to create a virtual reality experience of the ancient Greek oracle at Dodona in NW Greece. The multi-disciplinary team is led by Prof. Esther Eidinow (Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Bristol), with Prof. Hugh Bowden (Department of Classics, King’s College London), Prof. Kirsten Cater (Department of Computer Science, University of Bristol), Dr. Quinton Deeley (Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London), and Dr. Michael Proulx (Department of Psychology, University of Bath).

An oracle was a site where ancient Greek men and women asked the gods to answer questions about the past, the present and the future. As Prof. Esther Eidinow explains—‘Oracles helped ancient society to cope with uncertainty and risk. We are focusing on the oracle at Dodona because thousands of questions have survived from the site, written on lead tablets. They show that the oracle was consulted not only by community leaders, but also by ordinary men and women, including enslaved people. Studying Dodona can help us to understand their experiences better: both how they responded to uncertainty, and how they related to the gods.’

This project’s innovative, interdisciplinary method provides the range of expertise necessary to create an immersive Virtual Reality experience of consulting Dodona—the VRO (Virtual Reality Oracle), and the skills needed to analyse the responses and impact of the VRO’s users. The project will engage its audience from the outset, involving them in its design and development: as Prof. Kirsten Cater notes, ‘in order to create the best VRO experience we will be involving teachers, students, and museums in the design process through co-production, as well as supporting them as users of the final product. This could have significant findings for enhancing the design and effectiveness of digital cultural experiences, specifically immersive experiences, for use in museum/heritage and educational contexts.’

As well as the potential of a VR environment to convey (historical) experience, the project will also lead to a range of far-reaching, cross-disciplinary insights. Prof. Hugh Bowden is excited about its potential to explore (historical) experience: ‘This is a great example of using modern resources, including Virtual Reality and EEG imaging, alongside traditional disciplines – archaeology and history – to investigate the ancient world.’

And, as Dr Quinton Deeley observes, it also has significance for research into modern experiences of divination and ritual: ‘The virtual oracle provides clues about ancient religious experience, and the effects of ritual practice and particularly divination on experience and brain function.’ He highlights the advantages of the project’s interdisciplinary approach, and how, ‘Drawing on the knowledge of other disciplines extend the ways in which experimental approaches can be used to understand complex human behaviour.’

Dr. Michael Proulx sees similar significant benefits for studies of the psychological impacts of VR: ‘This creative study of ancient history will allow us to make cutting-edge advances in the psychological use of modern technology. In examining the experience of an oracle, our methods will reveal what it is like to feel present in that place and moment -- almost like a form of time travel to better understand the past. This will also help with future VR development as we'll have a richer understanding of the role of multisensory processing and integration to help make VR seem real. The nature of the oracle experience, being something novel for modern people, provides a good basis for creating other virtual experiences outside of our daily lives.’

Overall, as Prof. Esther Eidinow explains, the project will help us to better understand both ancient and modern experiences —ancient experiences of a religious ritual; modern experiences of an immersive historical environment.’

Further Information About the Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) project, funded by the AHRC

About the Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) project, funded by the AHRC

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the VRO is a collaboration between the University of Bristol, University of Bath, King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, in partnership with the Ephorate of Antiquities, Ioannina, Greece; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and We the Curious; with support from schools including Badminston School, Bishop Thomas Grant School, London, Bristol Grammar School, Guildford High School, and Augsburg University, Germany.

The VRO project is a collaborative research project that aims to use VR to recreate an approximation of the historical experiences of individuals consulting the ancient oracle of Zeus and Dione at Dodona, NW Greece. Through user analysis, the project will investigate how the VRO can help to advance understanding of:

(i) the likely operation of the oracle and individual experiences of historical oracular consultation. Using a range of ancient evidence, and specialist insight, the VRO will explore the various possible methods of consulting the oracle, helping historians to better understand and differentiate among these mechanisms, and seeking to create a more detailed comprehension of the broader ancient context of divination and of ritual activity in Ancient Greek society.

(ii) the design and deployment of multi-sensory VR experiences for educational purposes. It will develop the VRO in close collaboration with teachers and students at schools and universities, and museum curators, in order to ensure that the product is aligned with public interest, educational needs and museum display requirements. It will involve teachers, students, and museum curators as part of the research team, first in designing the VRO and then in using the VRO in classroom practice, and museum displays and activities.

(iii) the effects on brain function and the senses of the experience of using the VRO.

Through analysis of user responses by psychologists and neuroscientists, the project team will gauge the sensory and cognitive affects of oracular consultation; explore the role of multisensory processing and integration in the experience of VR; and establish effective design parameters for immersive VR environments.

The oak tree now at the site of Dodona
Oracle question tablet from Dodona (c. 525-500 BCE). In this tablet, Hermon asks to which of the gods he should turn in order to get from Kretaia a child that is better than the one he has.
Figurine of Dodonaean Zeus (c. 470 BCE) 470 BC. Antikensammlung Berlin, Altes Museum, Misc. 10561.
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