University of Reading

Dr Matthew Nicholls

Professor, University of Reading


  • VR is a great tool for experiencing Ancient Rome at 1:1 scale
  • Looking forward to cheaper, portable VR headsets to expand experiences to more students

Dr Matthew Nicholls is a Classist at the University of Reading. He teaches Roman empire and Roman cities alongside MOOCs relating to ancient Roman history. He has used SYMMETRY for more than year to allow his students to experience his 3D models of Ancient Rome at 1:1 to understand the scale and emotional impact of Roman architecture. We talked to Dr Nicholls about how he approaches building 3D models of ancient Rome and how he uses VR for education.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I am a Classicist by training - I read Classics, which is to say Latin and Greek literature and history, at Oxford. My later degrees specialised in Roman history, and in particular my doctoral thesis on public libraries in the Roman empire. As I was writing that, I wanted to find ways to illustrate the buildings I was talking about, and that led me to 3D modelling. That has proved useful in both my research work and my university teaching at Reading, where I now work.

I have no specialist background in 3D work or illustration; that’s all self taught, but the fact that I have used tools like SketchUp to create a digital model of all of ancient Rome shows that 3D is now within anyone’s reach.

What is it about Ancient Rome in particular that interested you?

I’ve always liked the Romans, ever since I was a child. Their architecture is wonderful, and there’s something appealing about the idea of a pre-industrial city of a million people, with proper drains and aqueducts and grand public buildings. Over the course of my career I have visited Rome many times, and it helps that it’s such a lovely city to spend time in!

How do you go about creating a 3D model of an ancient city?

The first steps involved making individual buildings; at that stage, making the entire city would have seemed ludicrously ambitious. But bit by bit, and with help and advice from people who knew the software better than I did, I became more adaptable at making 3D models.

Gradually I began working on the whole city, and I have remade it several times as my understanding of what I wanted to do, and the potential of new software and hardware, changed my goals.

My prime modelling software is SketchUp, which I love for its use of use and versatility (I also teach it to students now, including via the SketchUp Visiting Professional programme). For rendering I tend to take models from there to Cinema 4D for assembling into a whole city and adding vegetation and lighting and render effects, and I have also been using Lumion a lot to generate nice fly throughs. I’ve begun to experiment with Unity and need to learn that better - real-time experimentation will be a huge additional capability.

What was your first experience using VR?

At the SketchUp Basecamp conference in 2014 - some fellow academics were there from the University of Minnesota, and demo'd a VR device based on the iPad. During the conference they kindly put one of my Roman buildings into their software so I could explore it in 3D, and I was immediately impressed by how powerful and immersive this experience was.

How would you go about convincing other professors to utilise VR?

The best thing they can do is try it. Even though I made all my own digital content, I didn’t appreciate the scale and ‘feel’ of some of these buildings until I stepped into them in VR - the experience is totally different to viewing models on a flat screen. Sound is going to add a new dimension, too; in my experiments with mass sharing of 3D content via my MOOC on ancient Rome I’ve seen a lot of requests for adding sound. Students like it when they try it, too, and I am sure that it will become more common in education as the cost and convenient barriers to entry come down. The fact that I have created all this 3D material for myself with no training ought to encourage others to have a go - it’s pretty easy to get started these days, and achieve quick results.

"Even though I made all my own digital content, I didn’t appreciate the scale and ‘feel’ of some of these buildings until I stepped into them in VR - the experience is totally different to viewing models on a flat screen."

Thoughts on the future of using VR for education?

VR is full of potential, but at the moment one barrier is the need to buy large numbers of headsets and powerful PCs to drive them, that then need a specialist lab to live in, which means employing a lab technician to keep it all running … so scaling VR up to a full class can be challenging at present. But as prices continue to drop, and new devices become available thanks to the power of the gaming market, we’re beginning to see those hardware challenges met. Free-standing portable head-mounted displays that can talk to each other would be ideal. Then software developers can really achieve the full educational potential of this technology - imagine taking a whole class into, say, the Roman forum, or the Acropolis at Athens, to explore together and converse in virtual space. I’ve started to see that sort of educational potential, for instance in SYMMETRY’s options for annotating and screen-grabbing, and sharing the virtual environment with other users, and it’s really exciting.