Hagia Sophia: An Experiment with Virtual Tours

An experiment with a virtual tour of the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Warning: this is an experiment in historic site interpretation. Things went wrong but we’re also learning a lot together.

I’ve been working on improving and enhancing the interpretation of historic sites and house museums for decades, plus I’ve also been interested in ways to improve access to these incredible places. If you’ve ever met me at a historic site, you know I take LOTS of photos and share them in my workshops, classes, and in this blog.

Last year, a friend introduced me to the Insta360 One X2, a small camera with two lenses that captures 360-degree photos and video. It’s popular with skiers, mountain bikers, skateboarders, and other active sport players because it captures everything, which can later be edited to the best views and moments. But how can it be used in the interpretation of historic sites? Is this a low-cost solution to create immersive videos?

I’ve just returned from a vacation in Greece and Turkey, where I visited several museums and historic sites that have long been on my list. As usual, I took lots of photos, including video using an Insta360. Fixed at the end of a yard-long selfie stick, it allowed me to capture drone-like views above the heads of the people around me without interfering with their experiences.

This first video experiment simply stitches four videos together of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul during a daily prayer service. There’s no voice-over or narration as in a traditional tour, just a simple walkthrough with ambient sounds. Remember that it was originally a 360-degree video that was edited to frame the view and add camera movements. I discovered that the video is smudged or blurred at times. I’m not sure if that due to a dirty lens or the low light conditions, but I hid the worst parts with photos from my iPhone (yes, I was juggling two cameras at the same time!).

Take a look at the video and tell me what you think. How might this format enhance the interpretation of historic sites? What are possible next steps?

4 thoughts on “Hagia Sophia: An Experiment with Virtual Tours

  1. Randi Korn

    What a treat to experience that kind of virtual tour! A few things that I liked: when you zoomed in so I could see the painting! I can see your editing skills, and I appreciate the time you took to put it together. To me, the textures that I saw in the building were fabulous, and I wished there were zooms of those, too, as they contribute to the ambiance and quality that I suspect the place exudes. There were a few times where there was too much or too quick camera movement for me (and I know that about myself–no IMAX movies for me!) and fortunately I was sitting down. Overall, loved it!


  2. Fred Cruger

    We are starting to use our insta360 for some “tours”. The first couple were just experiments (one yet to be finished ), but we’re now embarked on a more extensive effort. At various points in our historic downtown area, we’ll take 360 shots, allowing folks to “look around” at today’s world. On various buildings in those pictures, we’ll place “hot spots” that can be used to view the individual history of that building (short narrated slide show). That allows the users to participate at whatever level they want. They can choose to look around and investigate any building of interest, but not others. Video doesn’t seem to work in an area quite so large because of the transit times. We’ve made one indoor video, in a library, by placing the camera on a small library cart and having the librarian push the cart around the various sections of the library. That allowed users to look around (pictures or posters on the walls, artifacts on display shelves, etc.), just as they would see if walking through the library . . . very effective! However, they need to have the true immersive playback capability for it to be effective. There are a number of platforms now that offer immersive viewing of 360 degree still images, such as RTV and STQRY. We used RTV to do our local Passport Office https://fusion.realtourvision.com/139488 and a historic house in Everett https://fusion.realtourvision.com/155736 (still awaiting the audio files for most of that). We’re using STQRY for the historic downtown tour, complete with maps, narrated slide shows, then/now sliding pictures, etc.


  3. Trevor Jones

    The Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite buildings in the entire world, so it was like seeing an old friend. I do like the fact that the camera is over the visitors’ heads and I appreciate that view — but at the same time I found myself annoyed by the crowds who were still blocking what I wanted to see. Maybe this perception issue is mine alone, but if I’m doing a virtual tour I want the venue to belong to me.


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