What was it like to walk round the Colosseum when the Roman Empire was at its height? How would the experience have differed from that of a tourist today?

Our understanding of what life was like in bygone eras could be boosted, thanks to a new initiative aiming to depict more accurately and realistically how heritage sites may have looked in their heyday.

Computer scientists and cultural heritage researchers are assessing whether today's increasingly sophisticated 3-d computer technology can be combined with the most recent historical evidence to produce significantly improved visual reconstructions of churches, palaces and other ancient sites.

This could help historians, students and museum visitors gain a much better feel of how such sites were perceived by the people who used them in the past and what it was actually like to be there. The project is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The work is being carried out by researchers from Warwick Manufacturing Group and the new Warwick Digital Laboratory, University of Warwick.

In particular, the effects of smoke, dust, fog and interior lighting conditions (all of which would have impacted on the way that buildings were experienced by contemporaries) can now be modelled very accurately, for the first time. New developments in display technology also mean it is possible to produce images that are many times brighter, more vivid in colour, incorporate better contrast between light and dark – and are therefore much more realistic – than those previously achievable.

Harnessing such capabilities developed by leading-edge organisations in these specialised fields, the Warwick team is the first to examine whether they can be combined with the most up-to-date literary and archaeological evidence (about a site's characteristics, usage etc) and used to create 3-d computer reconstructions that provide new insight into the past.

"We're trying to produce images that show more realistically the actual conditions of the time we're looking back at," says Professor Alan Chalmers, who is leading the project. "Achieving this involves taking up-to-date historical evidence and combining it with the very latest in 3-d computer technology."

"The future might see the combining of extremely accurate, high-fidelity 3-d representations with temperature, smell, sound and other parameters," comments Professor Chalmers. "Our work may lead to a significant new tool that could help put us in closer touch with the past."

The high-fidelity computer graphics techniques being developed within this project are equally applicable to other fields which require highly realistic visualisation, including medical images, product design, architecture and crime scene reconstruction.

Unlike physical models of heritage sites, one of the key benefits of computer reconstructions is that data can be held in an easy-to-manipulate digital format. It can therefore be updated simply and cost-effectively whenever new evidence, about a site or the period it dates from, comes to light. For example, chemical analysis of an ancient lamp can provide specific details of the particular fuel it used. This information can be used to determine how much and what type of smoke the lamp might have produced, and exactly how the colours of objects would have been perceived in the lamp's light, as these can change depending on the precise nature of lighting conditions. These findings can then be incorporated directly into computer-generated simulations of a relevant site, providing perhaps a different perception of how it would have appeared.

In this feasibility study, the team, with the assistance of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, the Byzantine Museum and Art Galleries, Cyprus, the University of Cyprus and Cultural Heritage Imaging, USA, are focusing on Cypriot remains from the Byzantine Empire (c.350-1450 AD).

Within a few years, the techniques being assessed could provide the basis for 3-d computer displays in museums that show how artefacts really may have appeared in their original settings. Indeed, the education sector as a whole could benefit enormously from the availability of such computer reconstructions of an unprecedented high quality.

The feasibility study, 'A Comparative Study of the High-Fidelity Computer Reconstruction of Byzantine Art in Cyprus in the Past and Present', is due to run for 10 months and is receiving EPSRC funding of just over £61,000. The project was started at the University of Bristol but transferred to Warwick Digital Laboratory, Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), when Professor Chalmers and his team moved to the University of Warwick at the beginning of March 2007.

WMG, at the University of Warwick, is a provider of innovative solutions to industry, supporting some of the most advanced research, development and training projects in the world.

The project team is working closely with BrightSide Technologies Inc., which has developed innovative, high dynamic range displays which it claims are thirty times brighter and ten times darker than traditional displays, deliver a hundred times the contrast range and provide much more vivid colour than other display technologies. For more information, visit www.brightsidetech.com

The Byzantine period is particularly well-suited as a 'test case' because the use of gold in Byzantine churches, and its interplay with natural light, candlelight and architectural features, created visual effects (e.g. pictures of Christ, the Virgin Maria and saints glowing and apparently illuminated from within) that had a profound impact on worshippers. More realistic recreations of such interiors could shed valuable light on people's spiritual lives and inform our understanding of how they viewed religious and secular authority, for instance.