Take a 3D virtual tour of the UK's National Museum of Computing

Now you can take a virtual reality look around part of The UK's National Museum of Computing, either in a web browser or using a Samsung Gear or Google Cardboard headset. There's also a similar tour the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, California.

A view of 1960s mainframes and disk drives at TNMOC

A view of 1960s mainframes and disk drives at TNMOC, with a couple of very large platters. Clicking one of the 'targets' shows more information.

Image: ZDNet screen grab from the virtual tour

Not everyone can visit The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park, home of Colossus and the UK's famous code-breaking efforts. However, anybody with a web browser can now take a virtual 3D tour of the core part of the museum. It also works with Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard headsets.

The 3D virtual tour includes two larger rooms with exhibits that include the world's oldest working computer, the Harwell Dekatron aka WITCH, and a rebuild of Cambridge University's EDSAC. Both of these were based on vacuum tubes (valves). There are also some minis and mainframes and their associated storage devices, including a couple of giant disk platters.

As the museum's Kevin Murrell says, "We are seeing 1950s computers with 2017 tech."

​Multi-lens Matterport 3D camera

Multi-lens Matterport 3D camera

The company that produced the virtual tour - Tring-based Venue View - uses a Matterport 3D camera imported from the USA. The web experience is similar to Google StreetView.

The virtual tour does not cover the whole of TNMOC, let alone the whole of the Bletchley Park site. You can't see the Colossus rebuild, which shows how one of the first computers was used in World War II code-breaking. Nor can you visit the gallery of once-popular microcomputers from companies such as Acorn, Commodore and Sinclair. Also, you can't quite see into the glass case displaying early calculators, which includes Curta mechanical calculators as featured in William Gibson's novel, Pattern Recognition.

The web display includes a number of hoops on the ground, which I assume are where the camera tripod was placed for 360-degree photography. For faster movement you can hop from hoop to hoop, but some places remain out of reach. There are also some superimposed white "targets" that provide popup information and links. If you click to visit Colossus, for example, that opens a separate web page in a new tab.

You can also navigate by switching to Dollhouse view, which provides a 3D overview of the galleries, or to a floor plan. These allow you to jump into any part of the 3D world.

According to its Facebook page, Venue View has produced virtual views of Tring Rugby Club, The Puzzle Centre nursery, the Churchill War Rooms, the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, The Holiday Inn in Aylesbury, and various others places, including a lot of commercial properties. It looks like a great way to sell real estate.

Matterport's system is widely used in the USA, and its website has a gallery of 3D views. It even has a virtual tour of the larger, and much richer, Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Dollhouse view of the museum

The Dollhouse view of the museum. You can jump back into the 3D virtual world from there.

Image: ZDNet screen grab from the virtual tour

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