Walking into history

European researchers are developing a virtual Pompeii that can be explored ‘on foot’.

The computerised version of the ancient Roman city will be several kilometres long and the researchers claim the environment will be more convincing than today’s best computer games.

The Zurich-based team — which is also working on a virtual Sagalassos, an ancient Persian city — will use an omni-directional treadmill being developed at the Technical University of Munich.

Other developers of virtual environments have so far been unable to allow visitors to walk through their creations because omni-directional treadmills are so difficult to make.

The German team will develop both linear and circular treadmills before beginning work on the omni-directional device, in a three-year project.

Most people are familiar with linear treadmills which are widely available in gyms. But the devices needed for the Pompeii project have to be much larger to allow people to move through the streets of the city without noticing that they are effectively standing still.

Gym treadmills have rails because the effect of them moving under people’s feet can make them lose their balance. In a virtual environment, any giddiness or loss of balance would ruin the illusion.

The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen in Germany is working to make the treadmill experience as close to the experience of walking as possible. The Institute’s Dr Marc Ernst said: ‘Our main goal is to enable natural walking. The treadmill has to pull back so there is no sudden forward movement.’

After building a linear treadmill, which will be six or more metres long, the Munich researchers will build a circular treadmill. Once the two types have been shown to produce a natural style of walking, the researchers will incorporate both linear and circular motion to make an omni-directional device.

The proposed treadmill, to be known as the CyberCarpet, is expected to be five metres in diameter, and will be made of thousands of spheres resembling over-sized ball bearings. The spheres will be propelled by a belt, which will sit on a turntable.

The Zurich team and one from the University of Rome are developing the software to control the movement of the spheres.