Our Country virtual reality experience offers rare perspective on Hunter history

Window to another world: "Our story is not just in the past, it's here and now and in the future, a continuing living culture," says Lillian Eastwood.
Window to another world: "Our story is not just in the past, it's here and now and in the future, a continuing living culture," says Lillian Eastwood.

IT’S Newcastle’s historic Cathedral Park like it’s never been seen before.

Scanning the horizon and without any buildings in sight, you wait as Worimi man Wayila and Awabakal woman Buuyaan approach and ask where you’re from, before returning to their campfire to discuss welcoming a new visitor onto their country.

Beside and behind you, birds are calling.

Welcome to Niiarrnumber Burrai, or Our Country, a virtual reality experience designed to offer users a conceptual 360 degree glimpse into life at nine Newcastle landmarks prior to European settlement.

“We are storytellers,” says Lillian Eastwood, a Ngemba Wailwan descendant and facilitator for Newcastle City Council’s Guraki Aboriginal Advisory Committee.

“We tell stories, whether it’s the Dreamtime or today. But how do we get those stories out to as many people as we can?

"Not just the Aboriginal community, or for young people to learn about their identity and connection with place, but the wider community, so they too can tell these stories about Newcastle. This is an immersion into a time before.”

Eastwood says the committee used funds from the council and Office of Environment and Heritage to engage Warners Bay-based software developers Virtual Perspective, which has created the nine scenes over the past 18 months.

Creative director Tim Davidson says they aimed to transport users to locations it was impossible to visit.

 “We want users to have a cross cultural experience on traditional land and Novocastrians to get a passion for and ownership over the history of these places,” he says. 

“You can get on a plane and go to Thailand or Russia and have a cross cultural experience, but you can’t go back in time to what this place was.

Contributor: Lillian Eastwood wrote the Awabakal and Worimi language Kuttung script for the Our Country virtual reality experience. Picture: Marina Neil

Contributor: Lillian Eastwood wrote the Awabakal and Worimi language Kuttung script for the Our Country virtual reality experience. Picture: Marina Neil

"VR does allow you to do that to a certain extent.”

Virtual headsets can be used, but are not necessary.

The experience will be uploaded on Monday to YouTube and the council and company’s websites. Viewers can use their fingers on a phone or tablet screen, or the cursor on a computer, to look around and soak in their virtual surrounds.

The three-minute Cathedral Park scene stitches together 7896 computer-generated frames.

Combined with the other  sites – Tahlbihn or Flagstaff Hill, Whibayganba or Nobbys Headland, Khanterin or Shepherds Hill, Toohrnbing or Ironbark Creek, Burraghihnbihng or Hexham Swamp, Coquun or Hunter River (South Channel), Yohaaba or Port Hunter and Burrabihngarn or Stockton’s Pirate Point – there’s 72,000 frames. 

Davidson says the project was a team effort.

Historians Charles Martin and Russell Rigby provided landscape data they collected for a separate project. The University of Newcastle’s Gionni Di Gravio and Dr Ann Hardy contributed historical information.

Eastwood wrote the Awabakal and Worimi language Kuttung script in collaboration with linguist Donna McLean and narrators Luke Russell as guide Wayila and Terri-Lee Darcy as guide Buuyaan. It has English subtitles. 

Virtual Perspective also consulted historical maps, Joseph Lycett’s paintings and photographs; plus incorporated calls from birds including the white-bellied sea eagle, sooty oystercatcher and pied cormorant recorded in the Hunter, as well as atmospheric noise from each site.

The software is agile and may be edited to expand and create new experiences, including for educational purposes, such as teaching how to build a canoe.

Niiarrnumber Burrai was born out of – and complements – a project to dual name all the sites apart from Cathedral Park.

The NSW Geographical Names Board gave the places dual name status in June 2016. 

“These projects are acknowledgement and recognition of Aboriginal connection to place,” Eastwood says. 

 Visit Foreshore Park at 11am on Monday to have the Our Country virtual experience through a VR headset or receive one of 100 pairs of cardboard virtual reality glasses to use with a phone.