Jun 18 2019

Dr Alasdair Pinkerton, Department of Geography, has been working on a collaborative project with Durham University and Google Arts & Culture. The project, involving immersive technology, allows for Virtual Reality (VR) to be used to allow people to explore the world's 'dead zones'. We recently caught up with Alasdair to discover more about his collaboration, and his reasons for using immersive technology within this project.

1. Could you tell us about yourself and your role within the Department of Geography?

I am a Reader in the Department of Geography, specialising in political geography and geopolitics. I’ve got particular research interests in the way that media shapes out geopolitical lives (my book on Radio comes out in August!) and British Overseas Territories. My latest project, though, looks at the 1000-year history (and geography) of no-man’s lands, and their proliferation within the modern world. Most of the time, though, I’m teaching our incredible geography students, in the classroom and in the field – including taking my second year students to the Buffer Zone that divides the island of Cyprus.

2. We understand that you have recently been working on a new Virtual Reality (VR) project that allows people to explore the world’s ‘dead zones’. Could you tell us more about this project?

For the past few years I’ve been working with a colleague at Durham University, Google Arts and Culture, and an immersive experience director to produce a series of Virtual Reality documentaries that explore the stories of people and communities whose lives are shaped by no-man’s lands.

In the western Amazon region of Colombia we have been working with local farmers inside the former FARC-controlled ‘Zona de distensión’. In Cyprus, we shadowed an author and political activist who cycles through the barriers that divide the city of Nicosia, resisting (in her own way) the conflict that still splits the island.

These stories underline the urgency of research in this area and the importance of bringing these stories to wider audiences. By entering into these otherwise closed environments, we hope to directly address some of the most urgent challenges of the twenty-first century, from climate change to violent conflict.

3. Why was VR chosen to play a core part of this project?

A few years ago, I undertook a 6000-mile expedition from the UK to the desert territory of Bir Tawil – an unclaimed no-man’s land between the borders of Egypt and Sudan. We wrote blog posts, created videos, and recorded audio along the way. But nothing quite conveyed the challenges or conundrums of the no-man’s lands we encountered along the way. In this phase of the project, we wanted to find immersive ways of telling stories and to explore ways to build understanding of, and advocacy for, some of the world’s most restricted spaces. Working with Virtual Reality has been a truly transformative experience, and we hope it will be equally transformative for anyone who watches – experiences – these digital documents.

4. This is a collaborative project involving Durham University and Google Arts & Culture. How has collaboration enhanced this project?

Quite simply this project could not have happened without the spirit of collaboration. Royal Holloway and Durham University have provided tremendous support for the No Man’s Project over several years, and this has only been enhanced with the participation of Google, who have given the project a new online home (on Google Arts and Culture) and leant us all the technology we needed to make our VR films. Given that VR cameras can cost in excess of £10,000, this was a vital contribution-in-kind. But we couldn’t have completed this project without the additional collaboration of Elliot Graves and Oliver Kadel, specialists and in VR filmmaking and 3D audio respectively. Elliot and Oliver believed in this project and gave freely (and excessively) of their time and professional skills – hundreds of hours between them. 

5. What would you like audiences to take away from their experiences with this project?

No Man’s Lands are not relics of the past. They are present, and the forces shaping our lives are accelerating their appearance around the world and amplifying the geopolitical challenges they pose. It is our hope that the Portraits of No Man’s Land project will give users the chance to engage with objects and archival assets that tell the story of No Man’s Land’s 1000-year history, while also accessing parts of the world that are locked behind barbed wire and minefields. Through VR and photogrammetry technologies, we want people to experience the everyday challenges of no man’s land – guided by people and communities who live and work there.

6. What do you enjoy about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Geography?

I have great friends and colleagues within the Department of Geography, and I really enjoy and benefit from the supportive environment we have fostered over many years. It great to work in a department where administrators, technicians, academics and students work so closely together and have a feeling of common purpose. As we move towards Schools, we will be working even harder to preserve as much as we can of this spirit.

7. Have you ever visited any interesting or unusual places?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit some pretty extraordinary places during my research – from ‘dead villages’ in north-eastern France to the abandoned Nicosia International Airport, now trapped inside the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus. This summer I am looking forward to progressing research in Gibraltar, and then taking the Portraits of No Man’s Land project on the road to Colombia.