Old Hobart Town
by Stephanie Williams
We’re surrounded by history in Hobart and now you can take a virtual trip through time to plant yourself in the 1820s. The brains behind the app is John Stephenson of Digital Heritage Studio.
Tell us about the Virtual Hobart Town app?
Virtual Hobart Town is a digital platform for exploring the capital of Van Diemens Land during the colonial era. Extensive research has been undertaken of historic maps, building plans and images to build an accurate 3D recreation. It can be experienced as a physical walking tour, where a user is guided to each location by their phone’s GPS, or view each scene in a remote mode from home. The app uses virtual reality to immerse a user into the digital reconstruction of historic Hobart, where they can look around in any direction and click on information points to learn more about historic buildings, characters and newspaper clippings from the time. There are 9 different scenes that look at different themes and events from our colonial past, some of these include convictism (including female convicts), free settlers, merchants and whaling.
At this stage the project concentrates on the year 1828. Why is that?
1828 has been chosen as there’s considerable archival resources that allow an accurate recreation to be made, and contains several buildings that still stand today such as part of the TMAG complex, the old Court House and what we know today as the Drunken Admiral. 1828 represents an important year in Tasmania’s history – it was 25 years since the first European settlement on the Derwent, the year the Cascades Female Factory opened and the year that Governor Arthur declared Martial Law. There were many active characters in Hobart Town at the time who would go on to leave quite a legacy for us through built structures, written records or stories about their ideals such as Governor Arthur, John Lee Archer, George Augustus Robinson and Isaac Solomon just to name a few.
What are some of the highlights?
You can stand on the footpath where Hunter Street meets Davey Street, which in the 1820s was a causeway, and see how much the waterfront has changed. There are bullock carts on the causeway bringing goods to and from ships waiting in the harbour, you can look south to the Bond Store and Commissariat Complex (now the TMAG buildings) or north to Macquarie Point. Or you can stand on board a whaling ship anchored in the harbour, preparing to sail off on the next adventure – you’ll see the tools and resources needed to outfit such a major undertaking, which provided much wealth to colonial Hobart.
What was your motivation to create the experience?
We’re so lucky that so much of our colonial architecture remains. We also have an amazing collection of archival records which are perhaps more significant. I feel that it’s an amazing privilege to be able to work with these records. We have a unique opportunity in Tasmania to combine these archival records with our built heritage, and advances in digital technology allow us to do this in ways that were previously unimaginable. Recently digitised convict records from Archives Tasmania describe each convict in great detail, down to their eye colour and tattoos. We can now recreate each convict in digital form, and place them in the model of Hobart. Not only does the 3D model of colonial Hobart show the original coastline and buildings, but the model is populated with historic characters, recreating scenes recorded in convict records or newspaper articles.
"Just as extensive historic research has gone into the recreations of buildings and characters, an accurate soundscape was created to match each scene."
Who created it?
The digital 3D model was transformed into the interactive phone app by Lithodomos VR, a Melbourne based company that has created similar products to interpret ancient sites in Europe and the Middle East. They are arguably the world leaders in this field. Each 360-degree scene has a soundscape to help the immersive experience, created local sound company Very Serious Media. Just as extensive historic research has gone into the recreations of buildings and characters, an accurate soundscape was created to match each scene, going as far as to check that the birds that we can hear are endemic species to the area.
How long did the app take to create?
The app is part of the broader Virtual Hobart Town project, which has been in development for over five years. It took about 9 months to develop the actual app – initial ideas and scouting for locations, updates to the 3D model, and then developing and testing the app on various devices. The app was ready for launch in March, unfortunately at the time when COVID-19 took off, which has had an obvious effect on tourism. Delaying the launch was considered, but COVID has also offered opportunities, for instance, the project has experienced an increase in online interest from interstate and overseas, from people who are still very much interested in experiencing our history, but cannot come and visit in person at this time.
Where can readers download the app?
The Virtual Hobart Town app is available for download on the Apple App Store and Google Play, just search for Virtual Hobart Town. You can keep up to date with the project on the Virtual Hobart Town Facebook page.