Digital restoration for Victorian attraction

When rising costs thwarted a plan to restore a 100-year-old lift for canal boats, specialist integrator Holovis came to the rescue. Anna Mitchell explores how the company revived the site using digital methods.

The UK’s canal waterways played an important part of the country’s industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Foxton Locks, completed in 1814 and located on Grand Union Canal, was a key part of that network. 

Today very few canals serve industrial purposes and many have been taken over for leisure travel and tourism. Foxton Locks remains a vibrant focus for those enthusiasts and sightseers; incorporating pubs, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops.

The site also includes the Foxton Inclined Plane, essentially a lift for canal boats that was built in 1900 to accommodate larger boats that could not traverse the series of locks at the site. The lift was a striking example of ingenuity in Victorian engineering but was not a commercial success and was abandoned less than ten years after its construction.

When the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust, a charitable organisation, was formed in the 1980s it was with the view of reinstating the physical boat lift, which by now was little more than a grassy bank. It was hoped that at the turn of the millennium and 100 years after the lift was built that it would be restored and reopened. 
Child with headphones watching display
Steve Bowyer, current chairman of the Trust, was attracted to the project through a passion for engineering and eager to be a part of an undertaking that would revive the original design by engineer Gordon Cale Thomas.

He explains: “From its foundation the Trust started to restore the BoilerHouse, now a museum at Foxton Locks. It was rebuilt by the volunteers brick by brick. It’s been their life’s work and ambition really to better explain the workings of the inclined plane boat lift.” 

However, a major blow to the project was struck when calculations predicted the restoration would cost £12 million (approximately €17 million) up front, with huge ongoing costs for cable replacement every three years.

Bowyer and his colleagues at the trust refused to be discouraged and an idea to bring the Inclined Plane back to life using digital methods was borne. However, there were certain challenges to this plan.

“Obviously there was real disappointment when we realised we couldn’t really afford and justify the cost or indeed find anyone like the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance it for us,” says Bowyer. “So there’s been a real shift in position in coming up with a digital restoration for it and some real trepidation along the way.”
Crowd watching content in museum
Funding from various means, including £165k from the Arts Council of England, totalling £200k was raised and the BoilerHouse was pinpointed, alongside the Inclined Plane site, as the focal point of the new plan. 

Through a personal connection Bowyer came into contact with specialist immersive experiences and attractions specialist Holovis. Stuart Hetherington, CEO of Holovis, was familiar with the Foxton site from having lived locally to the attraction and was excited by the project. 

“I’ve always marvelled at the engineering achievements that are here at Foxton Locks with the physical locks themselves sand the inclined plane that used to be here as well,” he explains.  

“It was through a personal connection that I got to know Steve Bowyer here and was asked to see if we could help out with the museum refit and see if we could add some value using some of our knowledge about technology and immersive experiences.”

Bowyer says: “Stuart impressed me both with his personal interest with the work at Foxton and also with the immersive and digital technology that his company could provide. We’re a small charity; we’re not technology based at all. Having an organisation that could help us with that side of the project was fantastic and the fact that Stuart and his team donated some of this equipment to us also helped us dramatically.”

The museum was a very traditional space. For 30 years it had stored a variety of objects that told the history of the canals and Foxton Locks but in many cases were not engaging for the average visitor.
Museum staff member points to content on Sony screen
“The museum was a collection of canal and lock paraphernalia acquired by the Trust by various means over a number of years and it was a fairly dark and cluttered space,” notes Bowyer.

As it was built and maintained by the group of volunteers that were hugely involved and passionate about the project, the effort to modernise the space had to be done sensitively and by taking a collaborative approach.

Hetherington says: “It was very important that we listened to what [the volunteers’] needs were. They understand the museum better than anyone else. They understand the visitors that come here; the people that use the canal systems and the locks.”

Holovis started work by 3D modelling the whole site including the locks and the Inclined Plane. Within the museum Holovis installed Brightsign HD222 media players, two Sony VPL-FE40 projectors and 42-in and 24-in Sony displays. Graphics, developed from the 3D modelling, were shown within the museum alongside a video on the history of the site.  
Exterior of the BoilerHouse at Foxton
“There’s also an interactive element,” adds Hetherington. “We’ve introduced gaming technology where children can play a part in the operation of the inclined plane and what would have happened using a physical hands on approach linked to the virtual representation.”

The video technologies are supported by JBL Control 1 loudspeakers, powered by two-channel 240W professional amplifiers. Audio is activated by movement to welcome visitors. The Sony displays are integrated into furniture in the museum and in one case installed with Blackbox AV armoured cable headphones and an ART stereo headphone amp.

“We also used the data set to build an augmented reality application that is downloaded as part of the Foxton app that we’ve created,” explains Hetherington.  “That’s allowed us to engage with people at home and when they visit the site. Visitors can hold up their tablet or smart device outside where the physical inclined plane used to be and use the app to track the canal boats coming in and out of the virtual lifts.” 

Holovis augmented reality app is demonstratedBowyer notes: “It was hugely important to us that we engaged with people across generations. Getting younger people through the doors of the museum is very important. They are growing up with technology, handheld devices; often better ones that their parents can operate. So, engaging with kids seemed an essential part of what we were doing and I think we’ve achieved that”. Holovis has also sponsored the museum and donated some of the AV equipment.

“We’re going to continue to invest in the site so we support its needs in the future and make sure it’s a fantastic place for people to visit in years to come,” says Hetherington. 

Tech Spec
Blackbox AV armoured cable headphones
JBL Control 1 loudspeakers

Brightsign HD222 media players
Sony VPL-FE40 projectors, 42-in and 24-in displays