Diocletian’s Palace in the Croatian coastal city of Split is one of the best-preserved structures from antiquity. A recently opened VR attraction allows visitors to travel back in time and see what the imposing retirement home is all about This is what the Roman Emperor Diocletian looked like when he was built in 305 AD. I tried the VR experience.
I have been living in Croatia for four years and deal with virtual reality every day. When I heard the first historical VR attraction opened in Croatia in SplitI couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit it and go back in time in VR.
The approximately 30,000 square meter palace is the biggest tourist attraction in Split. It was built at the turn of the fourth century by order of Diocletian, the only Roman emperor who voluntarily and without violence resigned and spent his last years in this palace.
Today the palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site The historic old town of Split and attracts almost a million tourists to the city every year with its architectural treasures, restaurants and bars and a labyrinth of winding streets.
Gentle transition to the past
The VR attraction Diocletian’s dream is located in the immediate vicinity of the castle, not far from the former castle walls.
Even the entrance area makes you want to travel back in time: I enter a waiting room with a white marble floor and see a large poster showing a luxurious antique chamber. On the wall is a floor plan of the palace with a legend showing the places I will visit in virtual reality.
I step through a heavy red curtain into a long projection room. There are several seats on both sides, separated by wooden partitions.
The walls of the screening room are in the style of a Trompe l’oeil and are intended to give the impression of being in the basement of the castle, which is now open to visitors to the city. The real round arches of the screening room were also embedded in the optical illusion and protrude as if they were part of the basement. But who is this old man with a torch?
At the side of a palace citizen
When I put on an Oculus Rift S, the gaunt man suddenly stood right in front of me, surrounded by the massive basement walls. He greets me and introduces himself servant of Diocletiantasked with guiding visitors through the ancient palace of the Roman Emperor.
I’ll visit them in the next fifteen minutes Main Sights next to the guide as they might have looked 1700 years ago. I walk past merchants on a market street, enter the emperor’s mausoleum, admire the peristyle in its original form and even get to look around the magnificent apartments of the Roman ruler.
During the tour I learn a lot about the history of the castle and its most famous residents from the mouth of the city guide.
Historians helped rebuild
The VR experience consists of a real-time rendered film that spatially captures head movements and transfers them to virtual reality. You cannot explore or interact with the palace alone. The VR journey lasts fifteen minutes, with a new show starting every half hour.
VR Time Travel was developed by Irish studio Emagine, which specializes in the development of historical VR experiences. The initiators of the VR attraction, Tomo Taraš from Croatia and Declan O’Rourke from Ireland, decided two years ago to tackle the VR project and commissioned the studio to do it.
Emagine was responsible for historical research, assisted by local historians. The developers also flew to Split several times to get an impression of the palace, scan buildings and take photos for textures. The old castle should be reconstructed as authentically as possible.
Interesting for tourists…
Graphically, the VR experience is appealing, albeit kept simple. The reasons are obvious: The project was funded entirely out of pocket by the two-person start-up and developed by an external studio.
However, the VR experience is an absolute must for castle tourists even without a budget in the millions and graphic bombast and is marketed accordingly by the city. Professional city guides rave about the VR experience.
“The Dream of Diocletian provides a great introduction to the palace and Emperor Diocletian. Virtual reality is a great learning medium for both children and adults,” says city guide Gytha Galić.
I was surprised by the rather bold use of artificial locomotion. Jerky or fast camera movements and movements through fixed objects are usually guarantors for VR nausea. The operators respond to my concerns that the VR experience has been extensively tested and none of the visitors have complained of dizziness or a queasy stomach.
… and locals
The VR experience is not just for tourists, says Taraš. It was also developed with locals in mind who would become aware Relive the beauty and history of their city thanks to time travel.
My reaction was similar because I’ve walked through the palace countless times and wondered what it looked like in Diocletian’s time. The VR experience made me feel more connected to the past and the city’s millennia-old history.
“Diocletian’s Dream expands the idea of what life was like in Split back then,” says guide Ives Cikatić. “You can read books, watch videos and read articles, but experience the palace as if you went back in time, that’s it an amazing experience.”
Taraš remembers a tour guide who visited the VR attraction. “She cited a study that said tourists typically recall less than 10 percent of the facts cited. What remains and what counts is the impression, the experience,” says Taraš.
The entrance ticket for Diocletian’s dream is currently reduced to around 7 euros. Seats can be reserved on the official website. The VR experience is available in Croatian, English, Italian, French and soon in German.