Step back in time with your smartphone in Bruges


A new virtual reality device developed by the Historium and an East Flanders interactive media company invites visitors to step into the past and see Bruges how it would have looked 600 years ago

Today’s technology, yesterday

Anyone who’s walked the streets of Bruges knows the feeling of being transported to a medieval Flemish city with its cobblestones, canals and... De Lijn buses? Unfortunately, the present has a way of intruding on even the most well-preserved historic locations.

What history buff hasn’t wished for a time machine, for a way to travel back in time and see things the way they used to be?

Thanks to a ground-breaking new device using virtual reality, visitors to the Historium can now experience what’s it like to stroll around 15th-century Bruges. The Historium City VR app is accessed via the internet using a simple, portable device that works with any smartphone. The app lets users view complete 360° recreations of six places around the city as they appeared 600 years ago.

“It’s an extra addition that lets visitors relive the locations of the Historium story but in the city itself,” says Christopher Roose, Historium’s general manager. “The City VR is a nice extra for every visitor and especially schools that combines a Historium visit with a walk in the historical city.”

Historium pioneered a new kind of tourist experience combining interactive storytelling, physical environments and historical information when it opened in 2012. Adding virtual reality to the mix would seem like a logical extension of the existing offering. The virtual environments in City VR build on research and designs that were used to create the original Historium experience.

Around the world

According to Roose, Historium already had the content, having invested in researching and recreating a historically accurate 15th-century Bruges, and wanted a way to bring it to as many people as possible.

They worked with Sevenedge, an interactive media agency based in East Flanders, to develop a virtual reality experience for visitors. Last year, Sevenedge set up a virtual reality Lab at Historium using technology from Oculus, a major player in the emerging VR field. Visitors could try the high-tech headsets for free and go on a virtual journey through medieval Bruges. 

That experience convinced Historium to commission a low-cost, accessible VR product that could be combined with their existing offering. “Taking the Virtual Reality experience outside of Historium and making it accessible to everyone with no investment in expensive hardware was a solution that led us to Google Cardboard,” Roose explains.

Google Cardboard is a virtual reality device that is literally made from cardboard, along with a few other low-cost components. It works with any smartphone on the market and its affordability means many people who might otherwise not invest in a new technology can easily try it out.

Historium’s Google Cardboard device is available in combination with an entry ticket (for an additional fee) or it can be bought separately in the gift shop. Once it’s removed from its sleeve, it’s a simple matter to unfold it, assemble the viewer and place a smartphone into the slot in the back.

The app itself is accessed via the smartphone’s browser. Since the app requires internet access, visitors can use Historium’s free wifi. One of the six virtual locations is the site of the Historium building itself. In the future, Historium plans to install wifi beacons at the other locations around the city, but all the locations in the app can be viewed from Historium – or from anywhere in the world.

Says Roose, “Through our statistics we can check where people use our app. And it’s not only in Bruges. We have downloads in cities from Delhi to Dublin. So the people who bought the Historium City VR in Bruges are re-visiting Bruges using our Cardboard and the City VR app.”

Certainly one of the most appealing things about virtual reality is the idea that someone can visit a remote location without actually having to go there. But in the case of Historium City VR, the remote destination is the past – and part of the fun is standing in modern Bruges while looking at its medieval equivalent.

The virtual location and its modern counterpart don’t match up exactly. I couldn’t get the buildings on the Markt to line up with their medieval equivalents. No matter how I twisted myself around and rotated my viewer, reality and virtual reality remained shifted 90° from each other. And yet it was still a thrill to stand in the middle of the square and see how it looked in the 15th century.

Historium has plans to incorporate VR into its main attraction, but for now City VR gives visitors a tantalising glimpse into the future of travel – by taking them into the past.

Photos courtesy Sevenedge