A History of the World

Explore 2 million years of human history in a completely new way.

I just finished a new project, called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It’s a joint venture between BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum, to chart human history in a new way.

I developed the concept for the object explorer with the guys at VML and built it in Flash 10.


Users are able to explorer objects from throughout human history in a potentially infinitely expanding 3-D time tunnel thing. They can filter objects by various attributes (such as material, size and type) and the timeline morphs to adjust. Users can also make history by uploading their own objects – before being mothballed in BBC’s page archiving program, users had added over 5,000 of their own objects and other museums had added 500 of their own pieces.


Every object or filter accessible within the explorer can be bookmarked, shared, or navigated to with the browser back/forward buttons. For added accessibility, the explorer’s 3-D view itself can be navigated purely with either the keyboard, mouse/mouse-wheel or the on-screen controls. Lastly, for users without Flash, a pure HTML version is presented with a basic accessible lists.


The main challenge facing the development of the Explorer was to build something capable of handling anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 objects, loading in their images and displaying it all in glorious 3-D… all without crashing the user’s browser.

The Explorer was built using the latest version of Adobe’s Flex SDK (3.5 at the time) and ActionScript 3.0 – written strictly to optimise performance and memory management, while ensuring maximum stability. Coding techniques such as object pooling, typed arrays, green-threading load queues, render deferral and the flyweight design pattern were used to maximise performance and minimise memory usage. Flash Player 10’s new native 3-D API was used in favour of proprietary Flash 3-D engines (such as Papervision and Away3D), to allow maximum control of the 3-D rendering code, minimise overhead and take full advantage of Flash’s advances in this area.


The site was a massive success. Beyond the 100 objects curated by the British Museum, 5,691 objects were added by over 4,000 different users. 1,400 objects were also added by 551 museums which took an interest in the project.

You can read more about the project at BBC’s development blog.

Leave a Reply