As tourist board’s globally attempt to innovate their way through the ‘new normal’, the typically forward-thinking and digitally-minded team in Helsinki has developed one of the more interesting pandemic coping strategies that we’ve seen. The city has partnered with local virtual reality firm ZOAN to power-up its Virtual Helsinki platform, opening up design icons like the Alvar Aalto residence and studio, and hosting its traditional May Day celebration in a format which ‘gamifies’ the city.

Having been crowned as the most innovative region in the EU by the European Commission in 2019, Helsinki is at the forefront of utilising digital innovation to create democratic and sustainable solutions for people to experience the city – something that is paying dividends now, in a time of crisis.

Inside the Alvar Aalto Residence

Virtual Helsinki has been in the works for over two years. The project sees a ‘digital twin’ of Helsinki built in Unreal Engine using 3D modelling from open data provided by the city, merged this with a series of drawings, hand-crafted modelling and imagery to create one of the world’s most realistic VR experiences.

The Aalto House – the residence of the Scandinavian modernist pioneer Alvar Aalto – is the crown jewel of the project, which also offers virtual visitors (or ‘avatars’) the opportunity to participate in activities, visit the historical centre of Senate Square, and archipelago Lonna Island. In the case of Aalto House, which is usually only accessible via pre-booked guided tours, the VR experience throws open the landmark’s doors to a global audience. Design students in particular will benefit: while VR and 360-degree videos are used as a marketing tool by many destinations, Virtual Helsinki goes a step further, allowing visitors to move about freely in the digital simulation of Helsinki, shaping their own experience.

Though the platform will undoubtedly benefit those seeking culture and interaction during lockdown, it will remain live indefinitely, presenting an innovative blueprint for how global communities access cities in the future. Further destinations and landmarks will be added to the experience over the coming months including Vallisaari Island, set to host the inaugural Helsinki Biennial. §

Top, Senate Square, Helsinki. Bottom, Making of Virtual Helsinki