Nuns, Archaeology and the HTC Vive: 2015’s Hottest Habit


Archaeologist and founder David Finsterwalder recently turned to virtual reality to demonstrate the fruits of his archaeological labor for those lucky enough to catch him at meetups in Ellwangen, Munich and Stuttgart. One unlikely visitor, a local Nun, turned out to be huge fan of the demo.

Over the course of an excavation in the southern German town of Ellwangen, archaeologists gathered large quantities of scanning and photogrammetry data. Finsterwalder’s desire to make good use of that data led him to experiment with WebGL before moving on to augmented reality and an Android app, the Oculus DK1, DK2 and finally the HTC Vive.

In a demo posted on’s YouTube channel, Finsterwalder probes what initially looks like a miniature recreation of Ellwangen before tapping a button (around the 1:30 mark) that pulls him down to the dig site at Ellwangen Abbey. At ground level, building names, credit lines and methodologies are superimposed—in German—over corresponding objects. The video culminates with a close-up, and impressively HD, investigation of skeletal remains in an open stone tomb.

The graphics’ quality improves progressively as Finsterwalder focuses his gaze on the tomb’s contents; the differences in fidelity owe to the fact that Finsterwalder had to rely on unintentionally captured “junk data” to reproduce much of the town. That, and he had no funding for the project, a reality that limited his ability to polish the final product.

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Since Finsterwalder’s original video hit Reddit, he’s received a burst of enthusiastic responses from those who caught it. “Someone from Germany saw that announcement on reddit and drove almost 200km there to see the [HTC] Vive demo and he was the one filming,” he tells us.


Among others to try the demo, a nun from Ellwangen seemed to really, really enjoy it; in the video, she quickly assumes the joyful “whoa” expression and attitude that immersive VR tends to evoke. According to Finsterwalder, the demo the nun tried ends with the user standing on a glass platform some fifty meters above the excavation site. The visual looks “stitched together” because Finsterwalder produced it using images from across the two-year excavation. To the point, the height of the platform and the sense of “presence” the demo elicits in locals tended to evoke users’ acrophobia—hence why the nun seems at once giddy, awed and mortally afraid, as the video shows her at precisely this pivotal point in the demo.


“The coolest thing was that people didn’t see just a VR experience but actually a VR experience of the city they live in,” Finsterwalder says. “The excavation was like 100m away from the presentation and the huge church is just right outside the presentation room. This way people could see their own city as it was 1-2 years ago when we were excavating. In my experience seeing real places you know in VR greatly increases presence.”

The videos reiterate two cornerstone beliefs of the VR faithful: first, VR’s field of application is nearly infinite and certainly includes the sciences, both “hard” and “human”; and second, experiencing VR is the quickest way to convert skeptics or those unaware. This isn’t the place for an othering or exoticizing “even a nun” comment; it’s a place to relish the joy that virtual reality inspires in a first time user as she experiences her town in a way hitherto impossible.

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See Also: 3D Mapped HTC Vive Demo Brings Archaeology to Life

You can find more information on the work David Finsterwalder and over their website here.

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