Who wouldn’t want to travel back in time 400 years and experience the sights and sounds of Elizabethan Plymouth? Everyone, right? But the smells?
Well, you might need a strong stomach but now you can do just that thanks to a collaboration between British and American technology teams who have created a unique olfactory Virtual Reality (VR) experience.
For two days this July, a few lucky residents in Plymouth will be able to experience the full immersive experience of 1620 Plymouth, including the aroma of rotting fish, wooden latrines and the scent of orange water, commonly used as perfume by ladies of easy virtue.
The University of Birmingham’s Virtual Mayflower project was first demonstrated on the Barbican during the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower ship from Plymouth in September 2020.
But now, with the easing of lockdown restrictions, the university team behind the VR experience, led by Plymouth born-and-bred Professor Bob Stone, will return to the Barbican for a special one-off event lasting over two days.
The new demo features a 3D reconstruction of Sutton Pool including a number of new features and locations, with the Mayflower moored just outside in the Cattewater, and a unique olfactory display, or “smell” delivery system, designed to work in conjunction with VR headsets.
Collaborating with Plymouth-based Bluestone 360 Immersive and olfactory specialists from the American company OVR Technology Inc the team is pioneering new technologies in the delivery of smells to immerse VR users even further into computer-generated worlds.
“It has to be said that the living conditions of 16th and 17th Britain were unsanitary, to put it mildly, and Plymouth, at the time of the Mayflower’s departure, was only four years away from another plague outbreak,” said Prof Stone. “Yet, poor living conditions are not obvious from paintings of the time, especially those depicting the departure of the Pilgrims in 1620.
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“From the stench of the drainage channels, conveying human excrement into Sutton Pool, to the more acceptable baking smells of Jacka Bakery, still in situ on Southside Street in the Barbican, those lucky enough to try this technology for the first time will be able to experience the 1620s like never before.
Prof Stone added: “The Virtual Mayflower and 1620s Barbican project has been over six years in the making and has involved contributions from a diverse a range of groups and individuals, including the bosun’s mate of one of the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s tall ships, a talented 3D modeller in Canada, an animation specialist in Warwickshire and a 17th century historian in Plymouth.
“And, of course, we’d like to express a sincere thank you to our American colleagues – Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II crew in Massachusetts and OVR Technology in Vermont – without whose contributions, this latest immersive tech demo would not have been possible. We’re really excited to be able to offer this world first Smell the 1620s experience to a few lucky people in Plymouth”.
The Smell the 1620s VR demonstration will take place on July10 and 11 in the Mayflower Museum (Tourist Information Centre) on Plymouth’s Barbican, close to the present-day Mayflower Steps Memorial.
Due to a limited number of the new smell technology units, and to ensure hygiene conditions are strictly observed, organisers can only offer the experience to a limited number of people on each of the days. The event is already oversubscribed and a draw will take place to decide who can take part.