Doing virtual reality one better, a consortium of technology companies and European Union countries have created a "visual time machine" that allows tourists equipped with a smart phone to take a picture of an ancient object and then instantly review its history and see what it originally looked like.

This new technology, dubbed the "Intelligent Tourism and Cultural Information through Ubiquitous Services" (iTacitus, after the Roman historian), brings augmented reality to museums, palaces, castles and other tourist attractions, according to its developers.

"[Tourists] can look at a historic site and, by taking a photo or viewing it through the camera on the mobile device, be able to access much more information about it," said Luke Speller, a scientist with the BMT engineering group based in the U.K. "They are even able to visualize, in real time, how it looked at different stages in history."

The system uses GPS and image recognition software to identify the user's location when their camera is pointed at a building or painting. The Palace of Venaria near Turin, Italy and Winchester Castle in the United Kingdom already have systems in place. Tourists will eventually be able to access video footage as they stand in the Coliseum in Rome and watch gladiators fight as they once did.

Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics.