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See cities in past centuries with new Time Machine project

09:54 19/03/2019
A new research project will use digital technologies to mine information and create virtual 3D models of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, inside and out

The streets of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges will give up their history, thanks to an innovative new research project that will digitally match maps, archives and other sources of historical information. The result will be a unique way of visualising and accessing the past.

The initiatives in Flanders are part of the €1 million Time Machine project, which is being launched today in Brussels. Co-ordinated by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, it involves 33 universities, archives and institutions from almost all European countries.

Earlier this month Time Machine was named one of six large-scale research initiatives to be supported under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. It is particularly unusual for a project in the humanities to attract this kind of backing.

“This is an incredibly ambitious project,” said Mike Kestemont, a computational text analyst at Antwerp University and a member of the project steering committee. “The momentum that this initiative has managed to gain in a short period of time is just incredible.”

Antwerp first

The universities of Antwerp and Ghent are both involved in the project, along with Belgian Royal Library and State Archives, and almost all of the museums and archives in Antwerp. “Through improved knowledge of our past, we can better understand the present and learn lessons for the future,” said Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever. “That’s why it’s important that we work together with the university in backing the Time Machine project. A better understanding of our city and our beautiful heritage will also lead to a more tightly knit urban community.”

Antwerp’s contribution to the project will involve exploring how mapping and language technology can be combined. “We’re going to link all possible historical sources, ranging from old maps and manuscripts to archives and visual material, based on location,” explained Ilja Van Damme of the university’s Centre for Urban History.

The result will be a three-dimensional recreation of the city, rather like Google Street View, linked to historical data. “With this kind of interface, you can pick a building in Antwerp’s city centre and find out who has lived there throughout the centuries, and what the purpose of the building was,” Van Damme goes on. “And thanks to floor plans and sources providing insight into the building’s interior, you can even enter a virtual reconstruction of it and see what sort of things people had in the era of Rubens, for example.”

The Antwerp Time Machine was one of the pilot projects set up in preparation for the bid for EU funds, and so is already well under way. Ghent University will follow its lead, building time machines for Ghent and Bruges, from the middle ages to the present day.

This will involve bringing together fundamental research in the humanities with information and communication technologies. “We see this project primarily as a lab for co-creation with both local heritage players and our colleagues in ICT research and cartography,” says Jeroen Deploige, of the university’s Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies. Ghent’s engineers and geographers will contribute expertise in web and database technologies that will help make heritage data accessible.

As well as drawing on material from archives, libraries and museums, the aim is also for members of the public to contribute to the time machines, for instance uploading family photos and documents. This will help fill in gaps, such as the stories of 20th-century immigration to Flanders, which can then be connected with specific locations.

Time machine network

More broadly the goal is to build an extensive Time Machine network throughout Europe. “Obviously, smaller cities don’t have the means to develop the technology themselves, but in the long term they will be able to participate through a franchise model,” Kestemont said.

As for users, the time machines will offer exciting new opportunities to educators, for example allowing students to experience events in virtual reality, such as the storming of the Bastille or the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The project is also expected to encourage local initiatives in tourism and cultural entertainment, and new approaches to urban planning.

Companies working with digital technologies have been quick to see the possibilities. Computer game developer Ubisoft is already on board,” said Van Damme. “The possibilities to create synergies are virtually endless.”

Photo: See a virtual reproduction of Antwerp at any time in its past once Time Machine is ready

Written by Ian Mundell