‘Guildford Castle VR’ Review — A fun way to explore a medieval castle
Built in the wake of the Norman Conquest, Guildford Castle was one of England’s first castles and has stood for over 900 years. Visit a hyper-realistic digital double of the castle as it stands today, created using state-of-the-art 3D scanning techniques.From the product description
Castles are fascinating to most Americans. The only castles we have (other than ostentatious mansions) are of the bouncy kind. Not that they aren’t fun, but they rarely have the kind of history that the European ones do. My wife and I have visited several castles in France, Switzerland, and Italy and they are always amazing places.
We’ve all seen enough movies and TV shows playing up the glamour of castle living, but few of us will get the chance to give it a try. Being able to explore a castle by yourself is pretty exciting and really takes you back to an earlier time. Thankfully we can return to our flush toilets and iced beverages when we’re done!
Guildford Castle is thought to have been built by William the Conqueror or one of his barons sometime around 1086. Although it was more royal residence than military structure, it was still a fortress, so it was strengthened at various times. The interior had a great hall, apartments for the king and queen, and chapels among other rooms. Keep reading to find out how you can explore the castle on your own in VR!
About the Experience
When you first launch Guildford Castle VR, it may seem a bit underwhelming. You’re standing in a tunnel with an opening ahead. It’s not the most compelling start, but you can already see stone walls and a multitude of plants presenting an intriguing scene.
Stepping out into the light and looking up the hill you can see the castle keep with beautiful flowers in every direction, and paths leading away. Directly in front of you is a sign on a pedestal. If you activate it, you can listen to some information about the area.
The gardens are pretty amazing with a wide variety of flowers and bushes, and probably make for a relaxing stroll in real life. This is how the grounds are managed in present day. They are open to the public and from what I can gather, you only pay to enter the keep. It’s all maintained by the town of Guildford, and I’m sure the conservation work isn’t cheap! They’ve been in charge of it since the 1880’s and have done lots of work to ensure its continued survival.
You get around using teleport or free-walk movement using the mini joysticks on your controllers and squeeze the trigger button for the few places that require interaction. It’s nice to be able to get started without memorizing a set of buttons on each controller. I’ve been seeing more apps adopt this approach and I appreciate it.
Out in the gardens, you can wander around and take it all in. Be sure to see everything on the grounds by following the paths or walking on the grass (you can ignore the signs… I won’t tell). There are other structures on the grounds to explore also, but they don’t have interiors to enter.
Once you’re ready, you can climb the hill and see good views of the grounds below from a few angles, then you can ascend the steps to enter the tower. The tower is one main room with a few rooms coming off of it. You can learn more about the different rooms, and even see a reconstruction of them from the past. Since the scale is correct, it’s interesting how my modern 6ft. tall body needs to duck to go through some of the doorways.
The stone and brickwork appear to have been captured photogrammetrically, while the gardens seem to be artistic creations. This was likely a good idea since capturing plants with photos rarely produces great results since they need to be captured from so many angles. Using custom 3d models to recreate grass, flowers, and bushes results in a much more convincing look. Unfortunately, there was an odd glitch that resulted in flowers popping in and out as I turned my head. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s still distracting.
There’s a good amount of information available if you point and click at the pedestals. Instead of the recording just playing, you also have controls to pause, move forward or back, or stop the sound. This isn’t very common from what I’ve seen. It might be nice to be able to change the playback speed to 1.25x or 1.5x, but none of the clips are more than a few minutes. I also like that you can walk away from the spot without it causing the audio to stop.
Another impressive feature is that when you activate narration, you often see callouts in the environment. The “A General History” clip shows the keep’s exterior through time as you look up at it. Inside the keep, the “Graffiti” callout highlights drawings on the wall (very useful since they are rather faded). In the chapel itself, parts of the wall glow or even light up as with a spotlight to direct your eyes to the area of interest. I love it! It matches up with audio cues, so if you back up the audio, you can watch the callouts go in reverse.
I think my favorite part of the information is how they chose to “rebuild” the ruined buildings. As you listen to the narration for these, it builds up a translucent, almost blueprint-like, diagram of how it would have appeared. You can stand within or near this and really get a great sense of the enormity of the structure and how the remaining parts fit in.
They also made a fun choice to allow you to wander the entire village as it once might have been. From the inside of the keep, you can choose to go up to the roof to travel through time. This is a really great feature, though unfortunately I had a lot of issues with crashes here. I must have launched the app nearly ten times trying to explore enough of it to get a good impression.
As the village is rather large, you can activate a mode to be transported above it to see labeled areas of interest so you can jump to them instantly (referred to as “God Mode”). Once on the ground, you can move around the roads and see the houses, shops, and churches.
Overall, they did a great job with the quantity of information, the quality of the narration, and integrating the callouts so naturally. It really adds a lot to the experience to be able to learn about it while you walk around.
Other than activating the information narration, I didn’t come across any interactive elements. There were a few items in the reconstructed scenes that I expected to be able to pick up, but they chose not to go that route. Experiences like this don’t require interactive elements, but it does contribute to the immersion, so I hope to see developers take advantage of it more. OtherSight did a great job with this.
As a free experience, this app is very well done. If the same team did another castle experience, I’d be first in line to try it. The only downsides were the flower glitches and the crashes in the medieval town. I did notice there’s been one update since release last month where a few issues were fixed, and hopefully they’re still polishing it up so another release will appear soon. I imagine once the bugs are fixed, the developers will move on to other projects.
- Great castle location
- Well-done informative content
- Ability to explore past as well as present
- Crashes in the medieval town
- Glitches with flowers appearing and disappearing
I had a lot of fun with Guildford Castle VR. Being able to visit historic sites and see them past and present is what I love about VR. They did a great job of creating an immersive experience that really captures the place. Just a few fixes and this is a five-star app. Obviously, getting to visit in person is ideal, but the narration and callouts elevate this in a way that a real visit can’t. If you like castles or British history, you should probably get this. Especially with it being free, there’s no excuse not to give it a try. Let us know in the comments what you think of it!