Smell your way back in time with a multi-sensory augmented reality journey at the Mary Rose Museum

I HEAD up to the first floor of the Mary Rose Museum and am greeted by an animated reincarnation of Hatch, the only dog on board the Mary Rose, who will guide me along my multi-sensory augmented reality journey.

The Mary Rose Museum and Trust, located at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, recently launched the world’s first first multi-sensory augmented reality detective game - Time Detectives: The Mystery of the Mary Rose.

Launched in July, the anniversary month of the sinking of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the game immerses players in the sights, sounds and most importantly, the smells of life on board the ship almost 500 years ago.

Created by Picture This Productions, players become Time Detectives, investigating the sinking of the Mary Rose on July 19, 1545, which claimed the lives of almost all the 500 soldiers and sailors on board.

Mary Rose multi-sensory Augmented Reality experiece at the Mary Rose Museum, Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth on 7th July 2022 Pictured: News reporter, Elsa Waterfield using the app around the Mary Rose Museum Picture: Habibur Rahman

When I arrive and download the app, which costs £4.99, I’m fitted with a backpack that will automatically trigger scent at key moments in the evolving story, for example, when I’m later asked to fire the cannon, I quite literally smell the gunpowder.

Upon launching the game, I’m offered the choice of two photorealistic 3D characters – created by enhancing the trust’s forensic reconstructions of some of the crew – the ‘newly appointed’ yet inexperienced Captain George Carew or 17-year-old Henry, in charge of keeping the ship waterproof below deck.

I opt for the underdog, but it’s worth noting that if by the end of your mission you feel you haven’t quite seen enough, you are able to restart and experience the story once more - this time through the eyes of Captain George.

Using your mobile phone as a ‘magical spyglass’ to reveal secrets from the past, you follow a trail based on your chosen character, collecting and interrogating clues to solve the mystery and complete your mission for the King.

Mary Rose multi-sensory Augmented Reality experiece at the Mary Rose Museum, Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth on 7th July 2022 Pictured: News reporter, Elsa Waterfield using the app around the Mary Rose Museum Picture: Habibur Rahman

At one point along my mission, I become embroiled in a bar fight, and the distinct smell of a brewery seeps over my shoulder and into my subconscious, the idea being that this is more likely to create a lasting memory.

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Director and Creative Lead at Picture This Production, Charlotte Mikkelborg, developed the game in consultation with Dr Hannah Platts, of Royal Holloway University and the Mary Rose’s Head of Research, Dr Alex Hildred.

Charlotte says: ‘We thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to bring scent into an augmented reality game where obviously you have all your peripheral vision and we’ve got to hide where it’s coming from.

Mary Rose multi-sensory Augmented Reality experiece at the Mary Rose Museum, Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth on 7th July 2022 Pictured: News reporter, Elsa Waterfield using the app around the Mary Rose Museum Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘We also wanted to stretch what the technology can do, we’ve got five senses – why not use them? Scent in particular is really important to me when I'm designing experiences. It's the only one that speaks directly to the limbic part of our brains, which forms memories.

‘That’s why when we smell a smell we know from the past, it sparks that memory so fast.’

Charlotte specialises in multisensory experiences, having created multisensory virtual reality and immersive installations like ‘Fly’ for British Airway’s centenary - but this particular project with multisensory augmented reality is a world first.

‘I also wanted to help cultural heritage sites like this one, who lost all their customers overnight after Covid hit,’ adds Charlotte.

Mary Rose multi-sensory Augmented Reality experiece at the Mary Rose Museum, Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth on 7th July 2022 Pictured: Charlotte Mikkelborg, Director of Time Detectives AR app and Dr Hannah Platts, Academic lead of the project with the AR App on their phone Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘We’ve got such amazing history in the UK, so we wanted to create a game that would help attract people back to those sites.’

On my journey I am transported back in time, eavesdropping conversations and interactions between key members of the crew and gathering information or ‘clues’ to eventually present my case to the king.

Dr Platts says: ‘We approached a number of sites, but because of the Mary Rose’s potential for immersive experiences, we felt this was a place that our app could come to life.

‘It’s so rich in terms of history and artefacts, there’s so much to work with and for visitors to engage with. So it was about how we could use this multi-sensory experience to help it come to life even more.’

With a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology, Dr Platts specialises in multi-sensory experiences and is excited to be part of the game which is a first of it’s kind.

‘Smells in augmented reality is really new, this is the first example which has been done. We’re really hoping this is a way to engage audiences in a really exciting and different way of connecting with the past.’

Time Detectives: The Mystery of the Mary Rose augmented reality game.

‘You walk into a room, you don’t just see it. You hear it, you smell it, you feel it.’

In a society that stares numbly at our phones without connecting to the world around us, the irony of a game which uses technology to connect to the past and find out more about it is a marvel not lost on me.

As I reach my final mission (and without giving away any spoilers) I supply the notoriously ruthless King with a report of my findings – he is pleased with my efforts and I score 8 out of 11.

I live to see another day.

Dr Platts, who was instrumental in historically checking the game and the artefacts involved adds: ‘Because there is still mystery around it [the sinking of the Mary Rose], it allowed for that detective story. The more interactive we can get history, the more people will engage with it and remember their experiences.’

The family-friendly, one-of-a-kind experience at the museum is aimed at ages eight to 16, but all are welcome to probe the mystery of the Mary Rose.

Dr Hildred adds: ‘It engages people in a new way with our collection – they become part of the story. The aim is to provide families with a fun day out and to inspire young people with diverse characters and stories from history.’