The Irish Round Tower: Facilitating a phenomenological approach through virtual reality


Irish built heritage is unique in the sense that many of the structures are both extant and still in use as part of a living history of agriculture.  The round tower is a structure canonized at 50 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall, gently tapering to a conical cap roof, with putlog holes in its side used for steadying wooden scaffolding during tower construction (Stalley 2001).  These archaeological features, dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, are scattered across the Irish landscape around the midland coastal regions.  While is is possible for me to study Irish round towers through geographic imaging systems (GIS) or through the many scholarly texts written about their function in the ancient landscape, it is impossible to recreate the experience of being present at the site of a round tower.  The theoretical concept of phenomenology is focused on the importance of being physically present at a site of past use and not trying to understand what life was like at this location in the past.  It is the current understanding of a past site of human engagement, and this theory legitimizes what can be learned from this experience.  Virtual reality tours could be useful in allowing interested people to gain access to the interiors of Irish round towers, especially since most the the round towers in Ireland are not open for public tours.  In my research, I found a website that achieves this goal at the round tower site of Kildare.  The virtual tour allows the viewer to navigate the first-person perspective of the image using the computer mouse, mimicking how someone would turn their head if physically present.  Also, the tour allows the viewer to move in and out of the round tower by clicking on small red icons.  It provides a conception of the landscape surrounding the round tower as well, with the Abbey at Kildare and St. Brigid’s Fire Temple pictured as well.


Link to Kildare Round Tower:


Virtual reality tools, like Google Glasses and a structure sensor can be useful in the creation of place in a non-physical realm.  In this experiment, I try to understand the extent to which physical place can be experienced through virtual reality.  While considering these means in the context of the Irish round tower, I use the setting of my own home so I can compare and contrast the experience of being physically present versus being virtually present.



Using the Google Glasses and the structure sensor, while also implementing these technologies with the camera function on my iPhone, I created content that strove to recreate the every-day (and mundane) activities I carry out in my room.  I also used the structure sensor to model the interior space of my room.



One of my observations during this project was that there is an element of bias in creating a predictive tour through Google Glasses.  The first-person perspective of the experience directs the viewer’s gaze purposefully without giving agency to the viewer.  The structure sensor allows for a more liberal experience of place, but the distortions and difficulties I encountered while using it and the end product were not effective in creating a sense of place.  Perhaps technologies will be developed that can create an indistinguishable virtual reality that fully immerses the viewer.  The virtual tour of the Kildare round tower achieves this more effectively and allowed me to experience what it would be like to look up within the chamber of a round tower, what the walls within the chamber looked like, and even what the surrounding religious structures looked like and how far away they appear in the relation to the round tower.  This project achieved exactly what I had in mind, a means of virtually placing oneself within and around a round tower.  It did not isolate the viewer from the surrounding landscape, but included the other structures in the vicinity.

However, there is still pushback in response to virtual experiences replacing physical ones.  A study testing student responses to the implementation of virtual field trips (VFT) yielded a telling response to the popular opinion of virtual reality (Spicer & Stratford, 2001).  Many of the students reacted adversely to the idea of VFT replacing physical field trips, but thought VFT could be used to supplement physical field trips, especially after the field trip has taken place (Spicer & Stratford, 2001).  There tends to be the opinion held that a virtual experience is not as complete as a physical one–that it is somehow lesser.



It was interesting to use the structure sensor in conjunction with the Google Glasses.  The two technologies created varying perspectives on the same space.  The structure sensor allowed for a more self-led experience of the space while the Google Glasses colored the space through the perspective and agency of the wearer.  I think it is interesting to consider these contrasts from an anthropological perspective of understanding space and landscape.  Different and valuable information can be gathered depending on who wears the Google Glasses.  If someone who experiences the space as a part of their daily life wears the glasses (e.g. me wearing the Google Glasses in my own bedroom) the footage will be different than someone who had never entered the space.  I can imagine a systematic approach to virtually understanding past sites that involves the use of the Structure Sensor and the Google Glasses in conjunction.  The initial processing of a site could be enacted through the use of the Structure Sensor, gaining an “unbiased” capture of the site.  The Google Glasses could be used to supplement the information gathered from the Structure Sensor.  If the site is an ancient one, the Google Glass footage will be of a phenomenological nature, capturing a first-person perspective of the present experience of the site.  If the site is still in use or part of a living-landscape that exhibits contiguous use from the distant past to the present (e.g. Irish farmlands), the Google Glasses could be worn by people that use and experience the landscape on a daily basis, gaining valuable information concerning land use and lifeways.


Google Glass/Videos:


Structure Sensor:

This is the image on the iPad that I passed around during my presentation.  I cannot find it in my email inbox even though I remember it being emailed to me as a zip file.



“Kildare Round Tower And St. Brigid’S Fire Temple | Voices From The Dawn”. 2016. Voicesfromthedawn.Com.

Spicer, J.I. and J. Stratford. 2001. “Student Perceptions Of A Virtual Field Trip To Replace A Real Field Trip”. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning 17 (4): 345-354. doi:10.1046/j.0266-4909.2001.00191.x.

Stalley, R., Sex, symbol and myth: some observations on the Irish round towers, pp.27-48 in C. Hourihane (ed.) From Ireland Coming: Irish Art from the Early Christian to the Late Gothic Period and its European Context (Princeton, 2001).

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